Democracy isn’t Exclusive to National Government
This week, President Biden will host a two-day, virtual Summit for Democracy with participation from 112 nations. Fulfilling a campaign promise, the Administration has pledged to bracket this year’s virtual event with a second summit in 2022, and a “year of action” between, all focusing on three themes: strengthening democracy and countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
The State Department has been explicit: the goal of the Summit is to be as inclusive as possible. The importance of partnerships across sectors and with civil society is a central message of the pre-Summit materials. Sanctioned side events will feature discussions on inclusive governance, on disinformation and technology, and on civil society. On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson Center, with the Global Parliament of Mayors and the German Marshall Fund, and on behalf of the governments of the United States, Germany, and The Netherlands, convened a small pre-empt side event that focused on the importance of cities and subnational governments in advancing democracy.
More cities should be included in the main event.
Local governments are closest to their residents, and responsible for delivering the core services and infrastructure on which our increasingly urbanized world depends. Cities are also hubs for public and private sector innovation, including solutions that center democratic norms like participatory budgeting, inclusive design, and actions to advance international commitments like the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. City networks, both thematic (climate action, migration, gender equity), regional, and general, have become important platforms for shared municipal learning, advocacy, and collective impact. These networks have also become important spaces for solidarity among cities seeking to promote greater transparency, social inclusion, and the rule of law amidst increasing pressure from their central governments.
At the Wilson Center event, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski spoke about protecting the rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons through the provision of local services and in opposition to the national government’s policies. He is one of the four local leaders behind the “Pact of Free Cities,” an alliance of progressive mayors at odds with their national-populist governments. Together, these local leaders are aligned to European Union (EU) policies on social inclusion and climate action, but their national governments are not.
Cities like Warsaw are not just at risk of missing out on new Green Deal investment; they will also be squeezed as the EU withholds COVID-recovery funds as a penalty for the anti-democratic actions of their national governments. It is a paradox of populism that such penalties may actually reinforce bad behavior, as governments claim victimhood at the expense of their residents. Weakening local governments can strengthen the claim that they are unable to deliver, justifying greater centralization or privatization by national governments.
The Pact is pushing for the European Union to provide funds directly to cities to uphold their local commitments to a green transition; funds which would otherwise flow through their member states. Fewer funds will mean fewer public services - the bread and butter of local government. Poland has already taken steps to cut funding for civil society organizations that do not align to national policies, and consolidated the distribution of funding for civil society groups under a government entity overseen by the Prime Minister’s office.
Efforts to erode democracy take shape within nation-states, not just between them. Local leaders add depth and new ideas to the very challenges they face, and they often set more ambitious goals than their national governments.
As the Summit considers solutions to strengthen democracy, hearing from local leaders would be an affirmation that they too play a critical role in holding the line against authoritarianism, corruption, and the degradation of human rights. With a year of action and a second chance at the Summit next year, the Administration has the opportunity to elevate the importance of cities and regional governments in defending democratic norms. Inviting mayors to share their stories will reinforce the message that democracy depends on everyone.
Erin Bromaghim is the non-resident Senior Visiting Fellow for City and State Diplomacy at the Truman Center on National Policy, where she explores how improved collaboration between local and federal leaders can advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. She also serves as a policy director in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of International Affairs, where she leads coordination for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games and engagement on priorities like the Sustainable Development Goals and gender equity.