Where democracy exists in the world, cities and local government are on the frontlines of it. Cities are where people collect and cluster, where innovation is most organic, and where people actively live out the levels of engagement that good democracy envisions.
GMF Cities carefully chose the words “further” and “fortify” democracy for a reason.
First, although the core values that have driven democracy from the beginning—for example, the right to participate in governance, freedoms of speech and assembly, living by the rule of law, protection of minority rights, the free and fair ability to vote, and more—should remain constant, the tools of how these values get exercised can be modernized and improved. In other words, 21st century democracy will not necessarily look and feel just like our grandparents’ democracy; hence the word “further.”
Cities are builders and innovators. Cities should be out front in redefining how democracy works. They already have taken the lead in the use of technology, in making data and information more transparent, in using tangible performance measures to show progress or not, and they should also help to redefine what democracy is for the future.
Cities also defend (or “fortify”) democracy where it is under attack. The policies they pass and the practices they use to broadly involve residents in decisionmaking or remain accountable to local residents will either enrich or erode the institutions of democracy key to its survival. Things like a vibrant local press, trust in governing, free and fair local elections, and support of the justice system are all critical ways that communities defend their systems of democracy.
Cities Fortifying Democracy
“Is democracy in decline?” This question was posed in the 25th anniversary edition of the Journal of Democracy in 2015 and has remained the subject of intense scholarly debate ever since. Though there is no easy answer, it has become increasingly clear that the values and institutions that form the basis of democratic governance cannot be taken for granted.
Cities are on the frontlines of this struggle because they sort through the daily issues and concerns of people that either make democracy work or not. It has become clearer that the ongoing actions of citizens, government, and other institutions can either fortify or weaken democratic institutions and enrich or erode a community’s commitment to the self-governance democracy provides.
GMF Cities will convene a cohort of up to 10 cities from throughout North America and Europe for an 18-month project. Seven representatives from each city will examine trends, innovations and ideas of how local actions can strengthen local institutions like voting, effective governance, the connection of just public safety practices and trust, and a free local press, to name but a few topics. Participants will also consider the implications of the changing role of technology and a global pandemic on these local issues. Ultimately, they will produce a toolkit of best practices that can be shared with all cities looking to further and fortify their democracies.
Project Description »
Projects in Development
City Strength of Democracy Index
GMF Cities and Gallup will partner to develop the City Strength-of-Democracy Index (CSDI), a rigorous measurement of local democracy that includes expert analysis of the qualities of a strong democracy as well as the voice of the resident. The CSDI seeks to strengthen liberal democracy principles in three ways: (1) benchmark cities across fundamental dimensions of democracy; (2) reveal the benefits that accompany higher levels of liberal democracy; and (3) identify and incentivize specific ways cities can take action to strength democracy. The CSDI should point the way to improve civic culture, from volunteerism to overall community and well-being. It should offer insights for policymakers and residents alike on building inclusive, participative, deliberative local societies that observe the rule of law, all the valued and requisite freedoms and responsibilities, and strengthen the trust so critical to democratic strength.
Concept Note »
Pact of Free Cities
Around the world, liberal democracy is eroding. In response, many cities are emerging as champions for more inclusive liberal democracies. This tendency is especially clear in Central and Eastern European countries—previously examples of successful transitions to democracy—where the mayors of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw joined efforts, signing the Pact of Free Cities to combat growing illiberalism in the region. GMF Cities, in partnership with these four cities, will expand the reach of their initiative by involving more cities and connecting with more local, national, and international stakeholders, and will deepen the impact of their effort by distilling and disseminating the ways in which cities can strengthen liberal democracy.
The context for each city and democracy is unique, but the challenges and dynamics are similar. It is essential for cities to equip and empower themselves to reverse this worrying erosion of liberal democracy around the world by strengthening their fundamentals, learning from each other, and coordinating with their peers and partners. Cities, consistently the most trusted level of government in both Europe and North America, need to more intentionally exercise their roles as lighthouses for democracy. Through their actions, cities can demonstrate how the values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity can come together to build thriving communities. With their voice, cities can call attention to how illiberalism threatens these values, and what this means for daily life in their communities. The Pact of Free Cities will be a platform where cities can support each other as well as reflect, share, and plan ways in which they can be lighthouses of liberal democracy and fight back against democratic backsliding.
Concept Note »
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