Are Cities Laboratories for the Future of Democracy?

San Fran City Hall

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As a kid growing up in the US, I was taught in school that ours was a great country because it was founded by a group of people who believed in the virtues of democracy; that our government was and continues to operate on the democratic principle of equal representation in government policy. Though the government is unable to act in accordance with the desires of every single citizen at any time, it is designed to bring the will of the majority to bear.

Silly me. I would soon encounter plenty of anecdotal evidence to make such claims look foolishly naïve. But recently, a new study by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin J. Page (widely covered in the media last month) might have just put the last nail in the coffin for the few shreds of idealism I and other Americans continued to maintain. Gilens and Page analyzed nearly 2,000 policy outcomes in the US federal government, looking at how those decisions were viewed by citizens of different income levels. After detailing their methodology, here’s what they concluded:

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

If there’s hope for democracy in America, it’s certainly nowhere to be found in DC. But we the people might be surprised to find that there’s still a bit of it left in a place many of us aren’t expecting to find it: city hall.

Despite the grim implications of Gilens and Page’s study for national level politics, the opening pages of the study hint that city governments might not necessarily meet with the same fate. They categorize policy-making systems into four basic groups: majoritarian electoral democracy, economic elite domination, majoritarian pluralism, and biased pluralism. Of these four, majoritarian pluralism is the most clearly oriented toward policies (not politicians) that match up with the general will of the people – though this happens via “interest groups”. It’s no coincidence that this is the only section of the study that city government is mentioned; Gilens and Page refer to Who Rules?, Robert Dahl’s well known book on local government in 1960s New Haven.

In reality, this reference has somewhat mixed implications, as Dahl’s book concluded somewhat pessimistically that Cities were doomed to be forever dominated by a small inner circle of corporate interests. However, a crop of recent articles indicates that, at the same time as the national government closes up to citizen participation, the influence of grass-roots activism is gaining strength in city governments.

In late April, Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect published a long article detailing the triumphs of various activist groups with local governments across the US. Meyerson is an interesting figure; he’s not very interested in “conventional” urban planning issues like infrastructure and public space, but in the past he has done significant research on how city governments have worked to achieve certain goals more commonly assumed to be the domain of the federal government. He concludes that, while many of US president Barack Obama’s plans have been blocked at the national level, they have been carried to completion within the governments of many major US cities.

But the democratic power of cities does not always work in favor of the progressive ideals advocated by Meyerson. In February, Next City’s Don Terry reported on grass-roots activism in suburban Baldwin County, Alabama, by conservative Tea Party members and sympathizers in 2012. Activists worked to successfully defeat a mundane regional plan, believing it to be part of a sinister conspiracy concocted by the United Nations under Agenda 21; in response, the county’s entire planning board resigned in protest. The weird postmodern implications of using local government to undermine the very rationale for local government’s existence were probably lost on the activists, many of whom consider postmodernity to be a sacrilege against the frequently touted Judeo-Christian values of America. Nevertheless, it is further proof that organized citizens can make a real difference – asinine though it may be – at the local level.

While some conservatives take advantage of their potential power in more open local governments, others lament that cities aren’t dominated by the same tightly knit old boys’ clubs that hold court in Washington. Joel Kotkin, a perennial opponent of any kind of urban planning that doesn’t involve massive amounts of sprawl, criticizes the lack of concentrated power in Los Angeles. According to a report from USC’s Annenberg school, Kotkin sees “the decline of the business elite as a major factor in the decline of the city.”

But there’s one city that might give Kotkin reason to hope, and the rest of us reason to be extremely worried about the same elite influence found in DC seeping into local politics: Detroit. In the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy, the New York Times published an editorial  that warned of the growing influence of Wall Street financiers in Detroit, and possibly other cities as well:

Municipal officials are prey for Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law called on regulators to establish “enhanced protection” for municipalities and other clients in their dealings with Wall Street, but the Securities and Exchange Commission has not yet completed rules, while the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s rules are so weak as to virtually invite the banks to exploit municipalities.

The undue influence of economic elites was also felt in another bankrupt city: Stockton, California. There, a cadre of Wall Street brokers sold city officials on a plan to build a new sports arena, civic center, and marina using municipal bonds (for a full explanation of the plan, see this documentary from the Center for Investigative Reporting). This plan took effect in 2004; later the city was pummeled by the economic failure of the stadium and the economic crisis of 2008. But an investigation revealed that the original bond deal was far from fair. Experts called it “the biggest municipal bond fraud in US history”, and the lead traders in the deal ended up with prison sentences. The danger for local governments is clear: national elites can potentially use them as patsies for their schemes, swindling citizens and local politicians alike, and of course, destroying democratic participation in the process.

Fortunately, cases like Stockton and Detroit seem to still be the exception, not the rule; democratic participation in most cities is relatively quite effective when compared to the national level. But sadly, the democracy-starved citizens of the US seem to think the opposite. Though there seems to be little research along the line of the Gilens and Page study cross examining policy outcomes with income levels specifically at the local level, a search in Google’s N-Gram (see below) reveals that terms related to corrupt local governments appear much more frequently in American books than terms related to corruption at the federal level. Although not a perfect indicator, it’s reason to suspect that the general public gets it wrong about which type of government is a better place for democratic participation.

Ngram corruption local vs federal

One might think that the epicenter for this civic cynicism must be cities like Detroit and Stockton. But surprisingly, Stockton has produced one of the most visible and most hopeful voices for local government: Michael Tubbs, a young congressman from the city. In a Daily Beast article:

I harbor no illusion that government and elected office is a panacea for all of society’s ills. I am intimately aware of the challenges and limitations of local office and understand that I cannot solve every problem that is facing my city from my city council purview. Still… local government and the political process are places ripe and ready for milllenials to assert themselves as stakeholders.

Well put. It’s easy to overlook local governments; they don’t have the star power that national level figures command, it’s easy to get frustrated with the process of local democracy, and the possibility of corruption is real. But as studies continue to prove that influencing the federal government is all but impossible for the average citizen, cities just might be the last hope for democracy of, by, and for the people.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Image via Sirgious