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Are City Governments the Last Bastion Of Democracy?

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Recently I accompanied League staff and city officials on a trip to Washington, D.C., where we lobbied the California congressional delegation. We urged them to support much-needed legislation to:

  • End the sales-tax exemption that gives Internet retailers such an unfair advantage over Main Street retailers;
  • Adequately finance the federal Highway Trust Fund; and
  • Address critically important water issues.

We were warmly received at each of our stops, and the California delegation and staff alike echoed the importance of our agenda.

In each conversation, however, the urgent need for the proposed policies was quickly tempered with the political reality of getting bills passed by a deeply divided Congress. Our elected representatives in Washington frequently reminded us that, in such an environment, support for many of the bills could be misrepresented and mischaracterized in campaigns as being supportive of a “tax increase.”

This dose of reality stands in sharp contrast to what I frequently see in city government. The joy I still feel in working with city officials is due in no small part to the fact that they “practice” government in a way that embodies the best of the democratic ideals that underpin our system of government. They report to work every day and truly do the people’s business in the most public of ways — before their friends and neighbors. Their successes and failures are continually on public display, and there is no greater degree of direct accountability to citizens than at the local level.

Explaining an Apparent Paradox

Over the past seven years as our economy slid into and then began emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression, reporters have often called me to inquire about the reasons for what appeared to be an anomaly: Voters under extreme financial stress were voting to raise or extend local taxes in large numbers. When asked why, I typically reminded the reporters that voters often gave their city officials approval ratings of 50 to 60 percent, so it should be no surprise that they were approving local tax or bond proposals.

Quite simply, voters trust their local elected officials to be good stewards of public funds and responsible representatives of the city. Another way to look at it is that they like the way their city officials run their local democracy. City leaders preside over what could be called the “stand and deliver” level of government. What you see is pretty much what you get.

The Prevalence of Dysfunction

As partisanship and rancor have increased in recent years at the federal and state levels, a growing number of books point out that because city government (and regional groups of city governments) is the level of government that “works,” more and more decisions are effectively being made at the local level. Whether it is Bruce Katz’s Metropolitan Revolution or Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, the message is the same: Dysfunctional federal and state governments need not impede getting things done if cities provide the leadership they are positioned to provide.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of transportation finance in California. As federal and state transportation investments have lagged and the state has dismantled the important transportation and housing investments made through redevelopment agencies, city and county officials have championed a combination of countywide transportation sales taxes, which has allowed us to continue making important transportation investments. While new federal and state government contributions are desperately needed, local resourcefulness has remained the key to continued progress.

Challenging the Status Quo

The obvious dysfunction in our national politics doesn’t mean, however, that we should write off or even tolerate the continuation of the level of rancor and sheer chaos that has come to characterize politics in Washington and even, at times, Sacramento. Michael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor, Canadian elected official and author of Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, believes democracy can work at the higher levels if elected leaders will look at each other as adversaries, not enemies.

Ignatieff observes that adversaries believe compromise is honorable and today’s adversary can be your ally tomorrow. In contrast, between enemies compromise is unacceptable and a form of appeasement. Ignatieff captures the essence of what it takes to have a working democracy — all of which you have in most city governments today — in a New York Times column published Oct. 16, 2013:

Between adversaries, trust is possible. They will beat you if they can, but they will accept the verdict of a fair fight. This, and a willingness to play by the rules, is what good-faith democracy demands. …

Between enemies, trust is impossible. They do not play by the rules (or if they do, only as a means to an end) and if they win, they will try to rewrite the rules, so that they can never be beaten again.

Adversaries can easily turn into enemies. If majority parties never let minority parties come away with half a loaf, the losers are bound to conclude they can only win through the utter destruction of the majority.

Once adversaries think of democracy as a zero-sum game, the next step is to conceive of politics as war: no quarter given, no prisoners taken, no mercy shown. …

The problem is that politics is not war, but the only reliable alternative to it. Once we think of politics as war, battle cries drown out democratic persuasion. By slow degrees, belligerence and self-righteousness make cooperation impossible. …

More civility and gentility — being nicer — will not cure this. What needs to change are the institutions themselves, and they will only change when the political class in Washington realizes that, just as in American football, there are some hits that are killing the game.

What’s Right About City Government

City officials often have deeply divergent opinions about proposed policies, and they can be strong adversaries. The ones who are successful over the long run, however, learn these important lessons early in their career. As with everything else in life, our most important learning experiences come through our failures.

Knowing that the council member who opposes your position on a proposed ordinance today may very well be your ally on another issue tomorrow tempers your rhetoric. It also helps serve the long-term interests of the city you and your colleagues love and want to protect. In this way, cities are not just the laboratories of democracy but, like the monks of the Middle Ages who saved the written history of our civilization, cities may well also be democracy’s salvation.