How democratic are local governments in the United States?

LPSI launches dedicated platform for local democracy in the U.S.

Even though decentralization reforms are something commonly associated with developing and transition countries, even industrialized countries with a long tradition of democratic practice must from time to time assess their intergovernmental relations and local governance systems. This observation is even true—or perhaps, especially true—for the United States.

Although Americans are more sharply divided along political lines than ever, most Americans agree on the bedrock principles of the American federal system, including the distribution of powers and responsibilities between federal, state and local governments; the separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government at each level (which provides important checks and balances); the need for professional (non-political) public administration; the notion of local self-government; and the principle of democratic representation.

Despite a shared commitment to representative democracy, federal and state governments seem to be increasingly captured by political and special interests—for instance, as a result of gerrymandering or the influence of money in politics—and increasingly fail to act as governments “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Although a debate surrounding the weaknesses of American democracy has emerged, this debate has focused almost exclusively on federal and state governments, while much less attention has been paid to the extent and nature of local democracy in the United States. This is the case even though local governments—as the government level closest to the people—form the foundation of American self-government and democracy.

Until 1996, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (U.S. ACIR) served as permanent, independent, bipartisan agency that worked to study and consider the federal government’s intergovernmental relationships and the intergovernmental machination within the United States. ACIR’s mission was to strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively.

Given the limited analysis and attention paid to issues of federalism and local democracy in the United States since the de-funding of ACIR, the Local Public Sector Initiative (LPSI) has launched in May 2018 as a platform to bring together and share existing knowledge on federalism and local governance in the U.S.; engage in evidence-based research; and analyze the state of representative democracy at the local level in the United States. The new platform will function alongside Decentralization.Net, which is LPSI’s existing platform for sharing global research and analysis of decentralization, local governance and the local public sector, including news and updates on decentralization and local governance reforms in countries around the world.

Initial research suggests that local democracy in the United States is in a state of crisis, with fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens turning out to vote in local elections across the country and only one out of three young Americans trusting local governments to do the right thing. Electoral structures in many local governments result in the systematic under-representation of women, minorities, and youth.

Initial findings of studies of county governance in Maryland and Virginia suggests that there is reason for serious concern, not only for the limited democratic nature of county governments in these two states, but in fact—to the extent that the uncovered practices are common across the United States—for for the nature and extent of local democracy in the country as a whole.