Seven Issues that Need Attention to Keep Local Democracy Strong

September 26, 2022
9 min read
Photo credit: Creative Lab /
After a year of research and working alongside 12 cities—six from Europe, six from the United States—on a project appropriately named Cities Fortifying Democracy, there are at least seven areas where local democracy can be vulnerable but where timely and dedicated actions will undoubtedly strengthen it.

They are:

  1. Equity and inclusion
  2. Civic health and literacy
  3. Youth disenchantment and activation of next generations
  4. Polarization in communities
  5. Caliber of local journalism
  6. Next-level community engagement
  7. Trustworthiness of elections

Here are snapshots of each issue.

Centering Equity and Inclusion

Democracy implies that everyone has freedom and agency in their lives and a full opportunity to be part of collective governance. It suggests that everyone can have a seat at the table; not just a few, not just the privileged, not just those most likely to engage, but everyone, including youth, historically marginalized populations, renters, and religious or racial minorities, just to specify a few.

It is incumbent on elected representatives to ensure that all voices be heard and multiple opinions considered, and it is equally important that individuals who are given an opportunity to play a role in shaping their community’s future take responsibility to so do.

As cities across the United States and Europe grapple with rising authoritarianism and attacks on democracy, we are also seeing increased racism and discrimination based on areas of marginalization such as ethnicity, color, immigration status, and class. For a strong democracy, communities must be intentional in addressing racial and ethnic disparities through equitable policies and practices and making systemic changes when there are gaps in outcomes. Doing the hard work using equity as the driver will yield benefits well beyond the value of being inclusive and build richly diverse communities.

Nurturing Civic Health and Literacy

The United States is abysmal in its investment in civic education, especially compared to the democracies of Europe. Germany, for example, spends nearly 100 times more on civic education than the United States per year. According to Katja Greeson, a fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, “Germany’s valuing of civic education is exemplified by the existence of the Federal Agency for Civic Education … [which] is responsible for promoting awareness of democracy and participation in politics through informational publications, training for teachers and practitioners, educational materials, school competitions, and research.” Where national governments fail or falter in this regard, local communities should step in to do what they can to compensate.

One organization in Lexington, Kentucky–Civic Lex–does just that. Working alongside residents and organizations of every shape and color, Civic Lex equips residents with the tools and knowledge they need to be active and involved participants, works with institutions on co-creation capacity, and makes tangible and useful connections between those with and without political power. Ultimately, their plain-language goal for Lexington is broad “civic health.”

Addressing Youth Disenchantment and Activating Next Generations

GMF visiting fellow and democracy expert Scott Warren says that rather than “interpreting youth chagrin as apathy, there is an opportunity to listen deeply, engage authentically, and work with young people to help reimagine democracy itself.” Wise advice from the founder and longtime leader of Generation Citizen, an organization devoted to transforming civic education so that “young people are equipped and inspired to exercise their civic power.”

Talking with city leaders, you will often hear expressions of frustration that youth don’t seem to understand how government works or how policy gets made. But what if the disconnect really stems from a sentiment within younger generations that the current systems of governing have not worked and have in fact exacerbated our biggest problems—climate collapse, racial tensions, income inequalities, and intolerance of migrants and refugee—resulting in an overall distrust in old or even failed institutions?

A report by Democracy Moves titled “Walking the Walk: Prioritizing Youth Political and Civic Engagement in Renewing Democracy” says:

Young people are not turning away from democracy as an ideal, but rather oppose the particular traditional forms of democracy that they are experiencing in their lives. They are growing increasingly frustrated with governments who are unresponsive, and who fail to prioritize issues that young people find critical to their future.

One thing is certain: next generations need to believe that democracy can deliver on its core values of freedom and justice, and still solve big problems, or it will be lost. Genuinely involving young people and screening every policy choice based on its impact on youth or through a next-generation lens would be an exceptionally good place to start.

Bridging Community Divides, Defeating Polarization

According to data and research by More in Common, an organization that works to build more united communities “where people believe that what they have in common is stronger than what divides them,” there is a two-fold trust crisis at work in society: a horizontal one among people who find it increasingly difficult to speak to each other across divides, and a vertical one between people and their democracy resulting in declining trust of political institutions and the media. Both axes are concerning and problematic for community builders.

In our first private meeting with the twelve mayors of the Cities Fortifying Democracy project, it was striking to hear the candor and vulnerability expressed by these dozen leaders about whether they had the tools and “charisma” to close the divides fracturing their communities. At the same time, the local leaders understood that they have certain capital in the bank that other levels of government do not, including higher trust by “their people,” close proximity to folks for solving daily problems, a steady set of tasks that are not fundamentally partisan in nature, and a deep knowledge of “what makes their cities tick.”                                              

When the things that make community strong break down—especially the ability to dialogue, debate, and disagree without an escalation to hate, or worse, violence—novel approaches are needed to hold people together. After facing an act of domestic terrorism in 1995 that killed 168 innocent women, men, and children, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum developed a project called Better Conversations that regularly convenes area residents for discussions around sensitive or controversial topics. In essence, the project teaches them that talking can help avoid letting divides lead to dangerous or unthinkable outcomes.

Nurturing Rigor in Local Journalism

The role of local news and quality community information cannot be underestimated in a healthy democracy. People depend on local reporting to guide them in being a good citizen and community participant. Not only have local newspapers disappeared in alarming numbers, but the percent of locally produced journalism has similarly collapsed. According to Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, that decline has resulted in or contributed to lower voter turnout and less choice in candidates, less voter knowledge and civic engagement in their communities, less well-functioning local government, and more polarization—all the things that we know make democracy more vulnerable.

It would be easy in a society where news and journalism are largely private businesses to simply say the market will dictate and there is nothing that local stakeholders can do. That would be a mistake. There are ways to understand the health and wellness of a local journalism ecosystem and to support its vitality, including checking the kind of political rhetoric that undermines it.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has invested heavily in a simple mission: “Building a sustainable future for local news.” They have also been part of putting together an assessment that can measure your local news and information ecosystem, for example analyzing the number of news outlets and the diversity of information providers, and how such things affect various community indicators. It is something every city should access and complete.

Stepping Up to Next-Level Community Engagement

The importance of quality community engagement never goes away, and nowhere is it more important than at the local level of democracy. It seems local leaders and stakeholders are forever wringing their hands about how to do it better, how to achieve more participation, and how to get well-supported outcomes as a result. Such angst is healthy and necessary because there is indeed more work to do.

We have witnessed a wide array of innovations regarding community engagement in cities over the past two decades, things like participatory budgeting processes to give residents a direct voice or vote in how public money is spent and the use of innovative technology tools and social media strategies to reach broader, often younger, audiences. These are all good. But new demands and greater complexities on bigger, hairier issues necessitate continued creativity and prototyping.

Based on our work with cities, engagement needs to evolve to be more customized, more nimble, deeper at times and broader at others. There really is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to what’s right or what works, so cities need to be ready to adapt and innovate in real time to achieve the broadest and deepest impact possible based on the issues before them.

Keeping Elections Robust and Trustworthy

It can be difficult to know which level of government does what in running our elections, which method of voting is being used, and whether both are ultimately trustworthy. Who has responsibility varies from country to country, but there are also substantial differences even among the fifty US states.

That aside, regardless of who is responsible for what, local stakeholders have, well, a “stake” in keeping their city’s elections robust and trustworthy. Paramount are the integrity of local voting and elections systems, the enfranchisement of new citizens, assuring high enough voter turnout so those elected can claim legitimacy and a mandate to lead on behalf of the populace, and, sadly these days, the basic protection and safety of election workers and volunteers.

I believe in the ingenuity of local stakeholders, governmental and otherwise, to innovate and problem-solve in this moment when democracy is in trouble. It helps, of course, that historically and comparatively, local government has garnered the highest levels of trust of any level of government on both sides of the Atlantic. But trust needs to be fostered as well in journalism, corporations, and small businesses, and indeed in each other for self-government to survive. And it will require much more urgency than what has been demonstrated so far.

A clarion call has been issued to mayors throughout the world to go on record in support of democracy by signing the Global Declaration of Mayors for Democracy. In clear, bold language it calls for a commitment to reaffirming the values of liberal democracy and fortifying its key institutions. Cities governing in alignment with these principles, even when leaders of their own countries may be headed in a different direction, will continue to demonstrate what the declaration demands: “The responsibility of cities in protecting and promoting our common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, human and civil rights, rule of law, freedom of the media, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity.”

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.

We are grateful for the energy, ideas, and active participation of the following cities in our fortifying democracy project this past year: Athens, Barcelona, Charlotte, Dublin, Fort Collins, Frankfurt, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Warsaw.