The rural-urban divide has been declared for dead many times over the course of the 20th century, yet the distinction remained surprisingly resilient. In recent years, we are witnessing a resurgence of the topic from an unexpected and disturbing angle: populist leaders from across Europe and United States proclaim themselves to be champions for the rural people against urban elites and the rural-urban divide is gaining an unprecedented political momentum.
What did the rural do to deserve this? – this is a question that we must ask in face of the current development. Why, among all the potential conflicts between liberal cosmopolitanism and conservative-populist nationalism, has the rural been elevated to such a prominent position? This paper argues that to answer this question, we must look at how structural features of rurality are culturally recoded in the populist discourse. Poverty and deprivation, localism, patriotism, leisure and thrift – all these qualities may take on different manifestations in rural and urban areas respectively, and these differences can be culturally coded in different ways.
In this paper, I will draw on neo-Durkheimian sociology to analyse the civil codes which the current discourse employs. I will also build on the cultural turn in rural sociology to present the rural – rather than as an objective entity – as a signifier which must be filled with meanings. On this theoretical background, I will attempt to show how populist movements recode structural features of rurality to produce a new sacralisation of the rural and to locate it at the heart of the current political conflict.