Democracy Lives in Cities


The disease is called the “democratic deficit,” and cities may be the cure.


It is why cities, not national governments, may dominate governance in the 21st century.


Basically, the democratic deficit means that our public life no longer answers to the voters, who are supposed to have the final say in these matters. The scholars say it happens “when ostensibly democratic organizations or institutions, especially governments, fall short of fulfilling the principles of democracy.”


Put it this way: your voice isn’t heard and your vote no longer counts. 

A vote leave supporter holds a Union flag, following the result of the EU referendum, outside Downing Street in London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall

"For better or worse, people like to feel they have some say in the political and economic decisions that govern their lives...But the feeling of control has evaporated."

The phrase "democratic deficit" was born in the European Union, as more and more power moved toward Brussels and away from national parliaments. Parliaments still existed and so did national governments, and these governments, which were elected by the people, still had a say in EU decisions. A lot of what the EU did actually worked pretty well.


But still, the feeling grew that voters no longer controlled these events. They knew their members of parliament, who showed up regularly to ring doorbells. But these MPs didn’t have as much power as before. That power now seemed to rest with the bureaucrats of Brussels, who were anonymous and somehow sinister.


For better or worse, people like to feel they have some say in the political and economic decisions that govern their lives. Perhaps through their votes, they still do. But the feeling of control has evaporated, and one of the results was Brexit. 


If the democratic deficit is a European disease, America has caught it good and hard. It is the root of the populism that propelled the presidential election of Donald Trump. The most severe symptoms are felt in the vast and surly areas of America left behind by globalization, but even citizens in the more favored cities have the sense that the government in Washington isn’t working very well.


They’re right. It isn’t. From immigration to inequality to global warming to the infrastructure, the federal government isn’t delivering the goods. In 2008, Barack Obama ran for president on a slogan of “change you can believe in.” Eight years later, Trump simply promised “change.” Obama didn’t deliver, and Trump is unlikely to do better.


There are several reasons, including the usual suspects – partisan gridlock, the power of money in politics, gerrymandering. But a big reason is globalization itself. 

US Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) holds a town hall meeting with constituents at Clover Hill Assembly of God in Midlothian, Virginia, U.S., May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Chet Strange

The constitution gives the federal government sweeping powers to govern and regulate the economy “to promote the general welfare.” This assumed that the national economy was the only economy that mattered. For two hundred years, this was mostly true. Most of the economy operated within the national frontiers, where the federal government could pass laws and regulations and make them stick.


That economy has now gone global. The giant corporations that dominate the economy exist in a global market in which national frontiers are often meaningless. These corporations have gone where those national laws and regulations cannot follow.


Once, Washington had real power over taxation, environmental law, working conditions, trade: the constitution said so. But all that – taxes, labor, trade – has fled and so has the power.


So Washington spends its days regulating what it cannot regulate and taxing what it cannot tax and fighting meaningless political battles, knowing it is all a charade, a good show for the paying customers who have stopped believing it is real.


As Richard Schragger wrote in City Power, the “the global corporation requires a global state to regulate it, but that global state is by definition undemocratic. Meanwhile, the nation state does not seem to have the resources to address this basic source of citizens’ contemporary discontent.”


Thus, the democratic deficit. A democracy, yes, complete with elections. But a national government responsible to the governed? Not for thirty or forty years now, and probably never again.

"Cities, more than anywhere else,
is where our voice counts."

So if we value democracy, where do we find it? In cities, that’s where.


The late Yale professor Robert A. Dahl, perhaps the nation’s leading scholar on democratic governance, wrote a book calling the American constitution undemocratic, because of the unfair weight it gives to smaller states, in the Electoral College and in Congress. Years earlier, Dahl argued that the city is the one place where citizens can be heard, with results. The city, he said, is the “optimum unit for democracy in the twenty-first century,” because it is small enough for citizens to talk with each other but large enough to get things done.


Dahl pictured a sort of town meeting writ large, in cities of about 200,000 people. The cities that count today are ten times that large but still compact enough to be true democracies, with the mechanisms to put democracy into practice.


Most people in cities know their alderman, or could if they wished: he or she has an office just up the street and holds regular public meetings. It is easy to write or call an alderman’s office and be heard. Moreover, cities run our daily lives. Cities fix potholes and collect garbage. They mow the park and issue speeding tickets. Local schools teach us when we’re young and local hospitals cure us when we’re ill.


This is personal. Relations with China are important, but most of us go through life without phoning the State Department, mostly because we sense it wouldn’t make any difference. Cities, more than anywhere else, is where our voice counts.


This may be personal, but it’s also local, so far. Cities have been slow to try to affect governance outside the city limits. But this is changing.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (L) and Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera shake hands while posing for the media in Mexico City November 14, 2013. Emanuel was in Mexico to attend the Global Cities Initiative conference. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya

"As national governments look inward, cities look outward."

The mayors of Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Juarez recently visited mayors in five American cities – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston – to ask how these cities planned to protect Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, in the Trump era. Washington should do this, but these mayors have despaired at any positive relationship with the Trump administration and are looking to cities to do the job.


A second theme was the mayors’ belief that a border wall doesn’t define US-Mexican relations. These relations involve a web of political, economic, and cultural ties and, if these are to be preserved, it is American cities, not the American federal government, that are crucial.


There will be more of this. For all the strains in international relations, most of the world desperately wants close ties with the United States. Traditionally, these ties go through Washington. If Washington is a hostile or incompetent partner, then the world – particularly its cities – will go to American cities.


Cities already are poised to take on this job. Some, mostly non-American, are opening mini-embassies in foreign cities. Many more cities, American and otherwise, belong to at least 125 multinational groups working together on such issues as sustainability and climate change.


Cities deal daily with issues of health, transportation, tourism, terrorism, and education, all areas that are intensely local and are becoming increasingly global. As national governments look inward, cities look outward. 

"There’s no such thing as a partisan pothole.
The political gridlock that paralyzes the national government is mostly absent in cities."

They are uniquely qualified to do this, because they cannot afford to let ideology get in the way. Mayors face practical problems to be solved, not ideological problems to be debated. There’s no such thing as a partisan pothole. The political gridlock that paralyzes the national government is mostly absent in cities.


Democratic urban leaders are closer to local Republicans than either of them is to their national parties. Chicago is an extreme case, because of the dominance of its Democratic machine, but the former mayor, Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, governed more as a Republican, forging strong ties with the Republican leaders of Chicago business and pushing economic development policies that no Republican could fault.


Mayors of other cities, most of them Democrats, also govern from the middle of the road, courting both corporations and workers. About 140 cities have adopted higher minimum wages or living wages, often in opposition to state policies. Other cities, such as San Francisco and Milwaukee, have adopted other pro-labor legislation.


As Schragger notes shrewdly, city governments are doing what labor unions used to do. As urban industry has declined, so have unions. Cities have moved into the gap, protecting workers’ rights while helping these workers pay the ever-increasing costs of urban life.


How far can cities go in seizing the reins of government? Their time has come, but formidable barriers remain. The next installment of this series will deal with this.