Cities Started Democracy. Now, They Will Save It.

August 23, 2022
We all learned in high school history that democracy started in the city of Athens.

But not all of us learned that the term “democracy” derives from “demos”, meaning “common people”, and “krátos”, meaning “force” or “might”. The force or might was that of common people who collected in a place they called home and determined a preference for governing themselves collectively. There is huge power in such a collective, especially when those common people are part of a shared community, such as a city.

For decades, conventional wisdom said that cities filled potholes, picked up the trash, enforced building codes and performed other mundane tasks necessary for their community. These are not unimportant tasks, just unglamourous ones, the day- to-day monotony delegated to local governance. The best and brightest cities did these things well, and their residents’ daily lives were better for it.

Our common consciousness changed in the 21st century. We now have much more expansive expectations of what cities do.

They still must perform all their regular tasks — licensing drivers, enforcing parking, fighting house fires — but emergencies small and large force cities to assume new responsibilities. When hurricanes or floods wash away neighborhoods, or terrorism causes horrific and inhumane suffering, local leaders and residents are largely responsible for putting devastated and traumatized communities back together. Nowadays cities are called on to fix climate change, house the homeless, and stop a global pandemic. Cities are also moving to rectify disasters of their own making, such as unjust policing or running highways through marginalized neighborhoods. These challenges test local officials’ strength to admit mistakes and course correct.

Cities provide more opportunities for creative people in different fields to interact informally and exchange ideas, which can lead to more disruptive innovation.

Cities rarely complain about the weight of these added burdens, even if they often arrive without the financial resources needed to address demands. But scarcity can contribute to creativity. Accomplishing a lot with a little is one reason cities tend to be hubs of invention and policy innovation. Another is the critical mass of people and ingenuity concentrated in a tight geography. A recent Ohio State University study1 found that cities—through their typical responsibilities, the intensity of being organic communities and the lofty, even global, problem-solving we’ve come to expect from them—have built the muscles needed to land them in the lead, again, on their next really big task: furthering and fortifying democracy.

Democracy in Crisis

In the past year, we’ve seen hundreds of stories about the demise of democracy in the world, including among “Western” nations that many thought were so stable that they took democracy and the freedoms it offers for granted. National policymakers and think tanks are on the job, talking endlessly about the dangers of democratic backsliding. Raising the warning flag is indeed important. But rebuilding confidence in democracy will require crisis managers and builders, not simply scaremongering.

Cities are ready for the job. Solving problems from the miniscule to the massive is at the heart of community governance, and cities have strengthened their relevant skills. Although we all could use more exercise, especially with respect to meaningful resident engagement and broad civic literacy, the values of liberal democracy are at the very core of what cities are. They are the bones of democracy’s body, and their instincts will be essential to strengthening democracies worldwide.

What’s Standing in the Way?

Disunity and divisions are at the top of city leaders’ minds as they search for policy solutions. This is evident in the German Marshall Fund’s “Cities Fortifying Democracy” project, part of the GMF Cities program that I direct. The project strengthens local democracies by regularly convening representatives of twelve cities (six from Europe, and six from the US) to consult on four areas: the importance of competent governing, the integrity of voting and elections systems, confidence in public safety and justice issues, and the role of local journalism to create an informed and trusting populace. The democratic values that must be brought to bear on all these matters is also a core focus.

During the project’s launch, with twelve mayors, their staffs and community representatives participating, one surprising and overriding theme stuck out: their ability to be effective leaders in deeply polarized communities. Demonstrating authenticity and vulnerability, the mayors questioned whether they had the charisma and strength to keep their communities united in a way that democracy demands. It wasn’t just a matter of doing the right things to address the worst problems. It was, rather, the hostile tenor of their deeply divided constituencies from which any mandates or policy solutions would derive. My team and I consequently placed polarization atop the list of issues that cities must address going forward.

Participants also identified a potent generational division: Today’s youth is disenchanted with current political and governing systems. Some criticized young people for not understanding how local government systems work, but that masks the real issue, which is that many young people seek entirely new systems. The next generation looks at the set of problems that they will inherit and blames old systems for climate collapse, racial injustice, and severe economic inequality.

Cities are learning from their mistakes as they rapidly grow more diverse.

A third issue (of at least fifteen) that bubbled to the top is how cities can advance multiracial democracy in which equity, inclusion, and belonging are central to all that they do. Like policymaking at every level of government, cities’ solutions to this challenge will first require an acknowledgement of the perpetuation of inequitable systems that have neglected or excluded so many. Unlike most larger governments, however, cities continue to tussle with integrating newcomers, migrants and refugees, and residents of every ethnicity, color and class. Cities are learning from their mistakes as they rapidly grow more diverse.

No Issues Are Insurmountable

The mayors and their community partners must address these issues to fortify democracy, and to restore their citizenries’ trust and faith. Cities are fortunately well-positioned to do this. Local leaders’ innate proximity advantage provides them with opportunities for daily physical contact with their constituents. Mayors and city managers may literally have to walk through protests to get to their offices, or they may have to answer questions in the produce aisle of the local supermarket when approached by residents (even if they wanted only a bunch of asparagus). For cities, community engagement is more than a concept or aspiration to talk about from the stump. It’s daily business.

These common interactions help explain why local governments have enjoyed historically high levels of trust. Officials are forced to be transparent in their actions and to work in true partnership with their communities. For decades, local governments’ trust ratings topped by a wide margin those for their state or national counterparts. Trust is central to a strong democracy and critical for addressing the polarization we now witness. And cities’ practical nature — not partisan nature — helps ensure that local problems lend themselves less to strict partisanship than inherently state or national issues do, even at a time when politics pervades most controversial issues that arise.

This is especially important to the “next generations” to whom local leaders should look when implementing policy. For European cities, understanding policy impacts on young people is, in many places, a matter of course. Meanwhile, American cities are finally awaking to the disenchantment and unconventional demands of new generations of voters, including their impatience with using the same, tired systems that created our biggest crises. Democracy will succeed only if the next generations believe it should. Cities are well positioned to instill that belief.

From serving as the first democracy’s founder to now fortifying threatened democracies, cities have been up to the job. Respecting residents’ rights and responsibilities and using the collective, organic energy of those residents is what makes cities tick. It is in their DNA. It’s not that they haven’t made many mistakes since Athens’ democratic start in 507 B.C., but the seduction of standing as free and self-governing communities powers them onward.

Cities Fortifying Democracy

The Cities Fortifying Democracy project is a first-of-its-kind cohort of American and European cities working together in teams to collaborate on what cities do and can do to strengthen the foundation of democracy from the ground up.

The original version of this article was published by the Bertelsmann Foundation on July 20, 2022, under the headline “Transponder Issue 2: Cities Started Democracy. Now, They Will Save It.