Nation, World + Society

Politics of place still exerts powerful influence in voting booth

Distinguished Professor of Geography John Agnew to deliver 122nd Faculty Research Lecture

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A man walks through an abandoned factory in the Midwest
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In his lecture, John Agnew will examine what's become known as "the politics of resentment," which pervades parts of the United States that have suffered a manufacturing decline.

John Agnew, UCLA distinguished professor of geography, has spent his scholarly career examining the politics of place. He teaches courses in political geography and globalization, as well as sections in the department of Italian.

For the 122nd Faculty Research Lecture on Thursday, March 9, Agnew will pose the question of whether there is such a thing as post-place politics. In a world that’s become increasingly interconnected by information and globally entwined economies, place — and specifically our intimate connections to our immediate communities and the shared life experiences these provide — is still paramount when it comes time for people to decide whom to elect, what government programs to support and how much to expect or hope for that will positively impact their lives.

“There’s a sort of mythic story we tell ourselves about statehood, nationhood — that our world is divided up into neatly defined territorial sections,” he said. “One of my contributions, I think, is to try and get away from that and to think about the world’s political geography in terms of the interlacing of different scales and layers — the global, the international, the national, but also the regional and local.”

In his talk to the campus community and the public, Agnew will highlight the last several decades of political maneuvering in Italy, from the rise of Silvio Berlusconi to the recent Five Star Movement founded by popular comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo and a web strategist named Gianroberto Casaleggio.

“You have had two important political movements over the last 30 years in Italy, beginning in the ’90s with Berlusconi, and, more recently, this strange Five Star Movement,” he said. “Both have explicitly organized through the media.”

Berlusconi owned almost all of the major private TV stations in the country. And Five Star is a populist movement organized around the internet. The idea was to overcome the barrier of space and geography, Agnew said.

But in the end, neither movement changed the fact that when people hear a political message, they will interpret it in different ways. People who live their lives in one place and surround themselves with specific networks of like-minded individuals might be completely immune to a certain kind of messaging, while others can be completely open to absorbing it.

“We have this idealization that somehow everything is going to nationalize, which is the term often used in political science, the idea that where you are doesn’t really matter anymore. My argument is that it absolutely does matter,” Agnew said.

In the case of Italy and the 2013 elections, Grillo, the blogger, gave up on the internet and started going around Italy on a bus doing very traditional retail politics to try and reach out to people, the professor pointed out.

When applying this thinking to the U.S., Agnew ponders “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” in which author Katherine Cramer takes a microscope to the political climate of Wisconsin after the failed recall and subsequent reelection of Gov. Scott Walker. Her book illustrates the powerful political consciousness of rural communities, and the distrust and resentment that lead people — even those who would benefit from strong government services — to not only vote against candidates who support these services, but vehemently oppose the very idea of big government.

It was a very interesting project, Agnew said. Cramer, a sociologist from the University of Wisconsin, insinuated herself into small organic groups and communities in rural areas across the state. She was surprised to find a great deal of hostility directed not only at government in general, but at the academic institution she hailed from.

“She found that people in rural areas feel neglected, like they don’t get their fair share compared to urban areas,” Agnew said. “It’s place identity, and it also comes with a sense that there is no solution. It’s a bit nihilistic, in fact. There is a sense of anger and also a sense that there is nothing to be done about it. It’s very emotional, not logical.”

Analysts, scholars and everyday Americans are coming up against these attitudes as they try to understand why a political outsider like Donald Trump was elected.

But Agnew warns against making overly simplistic assumptions about the voting electorate.

“You can’t just come up with a single sound bite to try and describe what actually happened because of the way in which politics is mediated through people’s everyday lives and the places in which they live,” he said.

For example, political rhetoric and federal policies that would seek to uplift the economy of the Rust Belt are ostensibly disastrous to economies in other parts of the country, like California, which relies on robust global trade and immigration, he explained. This likely had an impact on how California voters responded to President Trump’s campaign, as much as, if not more so than any longstanding Republican or Democrat leanings they may have had, he said.

Agnew, a native English speaker, calls himself a “hidden immigrant” to the U.S.  He emigrated nearly 50 years ago from England. He finds plenty of fuel in his adopted country for an ongoing examination of political geography, thanks to America’s unending balancing act between federal and state political priorities and, in election seasons, the role of the Electoral College.

There is a problem with the winner-take-all system of the Electoral College, he noted, one that could be fixed by assigning electoral votes to line up with how each legislative district swings in any given election — something that Nebraska and Maine already do.

This would preserve the original intent of the Electoral College to require candidates to campaign robustly across the nation and would also mitigate the current hyper-influence of swing states, he said.

“The Electoral College does have a logic to it that is worth keeping,” Agnew said. “It is an example of federalism, which is what America was built on. And I’m in favor of federalism because it really recognizes those important place-to-place differences in politics.”

Agnew has been teaching at UCLA since 1995. He’s currently working on a revision to his 2005 book, “Globalization and Sovereignty,” adding updates concerning Brexit and the election of President Trump.

The Faculty Research Lecture begins at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall. Each year, two outstanding UCLA scholars are selected by the Academic Senate to deliver the lecture and share their research and perspectives with the public.

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