Blog Post

Can Cities Help Us Believe in Democracy Once Again?

July 06, 2021
5 min read
Photo credit: Rob Crandall / Shutterstock.com

It is now in vogue, and correct, to assert that democracy is in an existential crisis. On both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the world, authoritarian regimes continue to consolidate power, political polarization is on the rise, and, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, civil liberties and freedom of expression are in decline.

Statistics back up this premise and demonstrate the extent of this global democratic decay. The Economist Intelligence Union’s Democracy Index evaluates governments around the world, measuring 60 indicators across five general categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties. Its recently released 2020 report is striking. The index’s average global score fell to its lowest score since it was first produced in 2006. It found that less than 9 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy,” whereas more than a third of individuals live under authoritarian rule.

These statistics are all worrisome, but perhaps most troubling of all is that people are beginning to distrust democracy. In the midst of heightened economic and political inequality, especially for individuals from marginalized communities, citizens may be asking why they should give credence to a governmental system that has failed to provide tangible results for them and their families.

Perhaps most troubling of all is that people are beginning to distrust democracy.

There was evidence of this lack of enthusiasm for democracy in the last few weeks on both sides of the Atlantic. In the first round of regional elections in France, less than 35 percent of voters participated, a drop of 16 points compared to the previous ones. Turnout was especially low among youngest voters: only 13 percent of 18–24 year-olds participated.

A week later, New York City held municipal elections. While ballots are still being counted, it appears that the turnout will be approximately 25 percent. In contrast to the alarmism out of France, this is being celebrated:  as it would mark a higher turnout than in the last two municipal elections. But should we really be celebrating a local election in which only a quarter of the population turns out? What do the disparate reactions from France and New York City tell us about differing expectations of democratic participation?

Voter participation is just one metric of the health of democracy. And these turnout numbers seem to line up with the worsening perception of democracy around the world. In a survey conducted across 154 countries in 2020, 58 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” with democracy in their country. This was especially pronounced in more developed democracies, like countries in Europe and the United States. Data from the 1990s found that 66 percent of citizens in Europe, North America, Northeast Asia, and Australia were satisfied with democracy in their country. Today, for the first time, a majority is dissatisfied.

So, what is to be done? Requiring the participation and trust of citizens, democracy cannot hold if they do not trust process. Many countries, like the United States, have looked to government action. The Biden administration has made it a priority to demonstrate that democracy can work, and it has looked to pass massive voter rights bills in Congress, like the recently stalled For the People Act.

The Importance of Cities

There is much work to be done at every level of government to repair and fortify democracy. But perhaps the most important institution that can play a role in strengthening the belief in democracy is one that closely impacts citizens every day: cities.

On June 23, GMF launched its Cities Fortifying Democracy initiative, bringing together teams from six U.S. cities and six European cities to discuss and collaborate on how they can strengthen the foundations of democracy. At the launch event, it was striking how such disparate cities faced similar challenges in many pillars of governance, elections and voting, public safety and justice, and local journalism.

But perhaps of most salience was the power of the framing of democracy. All of the participating city leaders care deeply about providing effective services to their citizens. For example, Athens has launched its [email protected] program, which offers targeted employment support for vulnerable social groups and incentives as well as promoting entrepreneurship.

The cities care deeply about engaging individuals in the act of governance. Frankfurt, for example, has a Frankfurt Fragt Mich (Frankfurt Asks Me) digital platform, which allows citizens to initiate projects, mobilize support for their ideas, and present these directly to the City Council.

And the cities care deeply about reimagining public safety. Charlotte engaged citizens in a Safety and Accountability for Everyone (SAFE) program that led to six recommendations on how to re-envision policing and public safety.

But to date, these cities have seen this work as necessary components to building effective, equitable cities, not necessarily as part of an effort to repair, fortify, and ultimately, save democracy.

If citizens do not believe in democracy, it will not survive.

Herein lies the power of the Cities Fortifying Democracy initiative. It is not telling cities that they must engage in specific “pro-democracy” reforms. Rather, it provides a space for cities to share common challenges, exchange best practices, and—perhaps most importantly—view their own critical work through a democracy lens. As these cities involve their citizens in the practice of governance, focus on repairing relations between police and communities, and emphasize the importance of local journalism, they are also promoting democracy as an effective governance system that involves, and listens to, its people.

Along the way, maybe these reforms will help lead to municipal elections in which the vast majority of citizens cast their vote. Perhaps the most important thing that cities can do to fortify democracy is to help their own citizens to once again believe in the potential and power of democracy. For if citizens do not believe in democracy, it will not survive.