The complexity of democracy, in its purist form, is a tension between individual rights and collective good. Today, we see this tension playing out in nearly every democratic country, including the United States.
U.S. democracy is a complicated mix of federal, state and local practices that allow citizens to engage in the democratic process at all levels through elections, referenda, recalls and initiatives. Complementing the electoral cycle is active citizen engagement, which is designed to ensure transparency and responsiveness. These elements of democracy are equally important when fighting authoritarianism.
As the Biden Administration heads into the Summit for Democracy, recognizing the complexity of democracy, the importance of engaging civil society, and including decentralization as an important instrument to fighting authoritarianism are all important. His administration is showing signs of this: The new USAID initiative to advance power by the people to bring about reform, and the commitment to support the World Urban Forum in 2022.
As a run up to the global Summit, on the morning of Dec. 6, two concurrent seminars took place that illustrate how local democracy can both provide a laboratory for testing reforms, challenge autocracies and, as a result, may contribute to the consolidation of power at the central level. Sustaining democratic decentralization provides a powerful tool in fighting democratic backsliding.
The Wilson Center’s Mayors Deliver Democracy Daily illuminated possibilities of how local governments can strengthen democracies, while the Decentralization and Local Development — hosted through the Local Public Sector Reform Alliance, a consortium of international multilateral donors — listed the many challenges counties are facing in maintaining a healthy central-local alignment of political, fiscal and administrative responsibilities.
Mayors from South Africa, Peru, Indonesia, Ireland and the United States attending the Wilson Center’s event shared their efforts to engage in constructive relationships with their state and federal counterparts, recognizing the intimacy that local governance allows for.
But challenges to building effective democratic governance in countries that are decentralizing as presented in the Alliance Partnership Forum, highlight the necessary commitments governments must make in the Summit. It is important that central government structure a relationship with local governing units that strengthens democracy. This includes formulating an alignment of responsibilities and resources between levels of government that allow local elected leaders to work with their constituencies. Concurrently, local elected leaders need to be held accountable by civil society to protect human rights and provide services fairly.
Local governance is not without its problems, but active citizenry that builds new expectations between the state at the local level, can be a powerful tool to reconstitute the trust that is necessary to bring about the promises of democracy. I first witnessed the necessity of focused, local development programs nearly 20 years ago while working as a city manager in a medium-sized U.S. Midwestern town. By that time, the economic and social challenges brought on by an economic retreat of the U.S. auto industry and declining population had arrested the city.
The once robust economy of the now declining city, which had supported an equally robust middle class, was all but gone. The protective social fabric that tempered the city’s racial and ethnic tensions was stretched to the breaking point, putting on full display what had always been there: Distrust of the local government and the police; competition over scarce financial resources; and apathy towards leaders who many thought had abandoned the city.
When I read Mike Hais, Doug Ross and Morely Winograd’s short tome Healing American Democracy: Going Local, their simple, yet elegant ideas on how to heal our democracy by going local resonated with me. The practicality of their ideas and the emphasis they placed on locally driven solutions will be essential now. The “increasing variety of America’s demographic composition” that Hais, Ross and Morely refer to was alive and well in my former city.
Healing the deep wounds of the city quickly rose to the top of the development agenda. While business leaders just wanted better services, especially those that addressed and resolved high crime rates, a rebuilding of trust between public servants and citizens was clearly the first step. With the City Council and staff, we forged a plan that reflected a vision for a new relationship with the population. Rather than following a path of supply and demand, we established a new paradigm of shared responsibility and shared success. We worked in partnership with citizens and pooled resources while accepting responsibility for our respective roles in solving problems.
Government officials at the Summit must commit to democracy at all levels. This includes free and fair elections; a change in their relationship with citizens to one of respect and engagement; and recognition that the voice of the people is equal to the voice of the government. This triad is fundamental to free and fair society and democracy.