Cities Will Save Democracy, but Only If We Measure It

Cities have retained high degrees of public trust for over 40 years.

Cities have retained high degrees of public trust for over 40 years. Ryan DeBerardinis | SHUTTERSTOCK


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Cities have become the gatekeepers of democracy. Creating a new index to measure democracy in cities may help save the institution globally.

Is a decline in global democracy inevitable? Trust—the oil that fuels the gears of democratic government—has sunk steadily. According to Freedom House, 2018 marked the 13th consecutive year of democracy weakening worldwide. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that among the American public trust in the federal government has dropped to an all-time low of 38%.

While this is cause for serious concern, hope remains for global democracy to rebound thanks to cities. That same Gallup poll found that trust in local government has remained mostly in the 70th percentile since the 1970s. A similar trend can be found between the national and local levels of government in European Union countries, according to Eurobarometer.

Why do people find cities more trustworthy than national governments? Part of it is proximity. People can see and feel how democracy works for them. But it is also attributable to cities’ efforts to address issues head on that are major stressors to democratic institutions.

Take income disparities. Cities are wasting little time attempting to reverse the widening income gap, which cuts directly at the heart of the fundamental democratic principle of equality. A hot issue that exemplifies this is housing. Cities like Minneapolis are actively working to reverse the discriminatory practices of the last century and create more opportunities for those who might have otherwise been left behind. By ending single-family zoning, Mayor Jacob Frey and the city council are attempting to increase housing supply, create more homeowners and, most importantly, undo the racial injustices that past policies were built on.

Similarly, cities are working across the political aisle. Partisan gridlock is corrosive to democratic governance. But city leaders have been able to set political differences aside. For example, following the tragic mass shooting in a downtown entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, last August, Mayor Nan Whaley worked with Ohio’s Republican governor to put forward gun control measures, including universal background checks. Bipartisanship combined with genuine compassion and a sense of urgency in the face of tragedy are the qualities that have allowed local leaders to build trust and legitimacy. This is just one of many examples. City leaders have shown repeatedly that partisanship takes a back seat to finding workable solutions that are in the best interest of the people.

But cities are not just serving as democracy’s staunchest defenders, they are also championing democratic principles like civic engagement. In the fight for housing equity in Minneapolis, supportive community organizers, such as local group “Neighbors for More Neighbors” helped achieve the policy victory. Getting to that outcome didn’t come without several protests and some political bruises, but that’s the nature of democratic problem-solving. Internationally, the leaders of Nantes, a city of 300,000 on France’s west coast, initiated the grandest experiment of civic engagement by starting a communitywide debate on the transition away from carbon energy sources. Over the span of seven months, 80 events were organized and facilitated by an independent commission of four citizens to solicit feedback from the public. In total, 53,000 participants and 11,000 contributors from 270 different organizations participated in the debate. That’s deep community engagement.

Cities are fortifying democracy by being bold on the right issues, repelling partisan gridlock, involving all people in solutions and getting results on everyday problems. Most importantly, city leaders recognize that their power comes from the people and, as such, their fundamental role is to act in their best interest. This is how democracy should work, and sharply contrasts what people experience at other levels of government.

A foundation can be built from this to start a grassroots effort to reverse the global decline in democracy and restore our societies. But to do that, we must be armed with the right analysis and instruments to better understand how democracy brings value to people’s lives. We need to create a robust index that measures the health of democracy at the city level. This index could include indicators around things that are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy: information transparency (e.g., codified open data policies), economic equality, voter turnout, civic engagement, racial and gender inclusion and effectiveness of local governance. The best governed local entities are already doing work in each of these areas and there is comparable data to prove it.

The best part: developing this index is entirely realistic since much of the data is already publicly available. For data not available, the index could rely on qualitative survey techniques to gather the data that doesn’t yet exist—a common tactic for national indices.

Even as national leaders chip away at foundational democratic institutions like freedom of the press, judicial impartiality and government transparency, cities and their leaders are demonstrating the resilience of democracy when reinforced. It’s time to develop an internationally comparable “strength of democracy” local index to help leaders and residents bring intention to practicing democratic principles and reverse the disturbing downward attitudes toward democracy before it is too late.

Steven Bosacker is the Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Cities program. He previously served as Principal for Public Sector & Partnerships at Living Cities, City Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, and as Chief of Staff to former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.

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