The League produced a workshop for the ASPA annual conference last month about threats to local democracy, many of which have filtered down to the local level as a result of national and state partisanship. While many communities are experiencing challenges to local civility, autonomy and work on equity, there are many examples of innovation to meet those challenges and maintain equitable and inclusive governance.
Workshop: Five Threats to Democracy and Three Examples
While much of the talk about threats to democracy is at the national and international levels, there are also threats at the local level. A recent ASPA workshop discussed the challenges faced by communities, partly as a result of national and state partisanship. Yet there are many examples of innovation to meet those challenges and maintain equitable and inclusive governance.
Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, published in 2020 by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman, cites four trends that threaten democracy at the national and international level. Three of these threats also affect local governance in the U.S.: polarization, economic inequality and “otherism,” and, to those, we would add two additional challenges: anti-democratic activities and state preemption of local autonomy.
These threats, along with examples of each challenge and measures used to push back in three regions, were presented in March during a workshop convened by the National Civic League at the American Society for Public Administration annual conference. Together with League President Doug Linkhart, presenters included Wendy Willis, Executive Director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table and a professor at Portland State University, Benoy Jacob, Executive Director of the Community Development Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and David Luna, a former City Councilman from Mesa, AZ. Wendy is also a board member of the League and Benoy and David are Senior Fellows.
Here is a brief outline of the five threats.
- Uncivil disputes among community members
- Candidates for local office running on anti-democratic or destructive platforms
- Activity not in keeping with local values, e.g., property destruction and graffiti
- Mobilization around school issues that is uncivil to school boards and superintendents
- Uncivil behavior on social media and government communication platforms
- Racist activities
- Activism that is racist, sexist, anti-immigrant or in other ways targeted at specific populations
- Violence toward classes of people, including not only certain ethnicities and nationalities, but also women, homeless, people with disabilities
- Failure to engage all populations in civic life, governing with instead with a narrow slice of local residents
- Permanent underclass due to unequal justice
- Permanent underclass extending from a lack of services, e.g., mental health and language barriers
- Voting rights suppression, including through intimidation at polling locations
- Activist groups seeking to overturn or interfere with elections
- Attacks on elected officials, including threats
- Threats and verbal abuse toward government workers
State Preemption of Local Autonomy
- Legislation limiting voting rights and local efforts to facilitate voting
- Prohibitions affecting local zoning, land use, policing and other powers traditionally reserved for local governments
- Interference with local government structures, such as efforts to enlarge city councils or move to district representation
As part of the ASPA workshop, three presenters spoke about how these threats have been seen at the local level. Wendy Willis talked about her hometown of Portland, OR, and the violent confrontations between protesters following the George Floyd murder in June 2020 and federal agents. These agents kidnapped, tear-gassed and beat protesters, often in spite of efforts by local authorities to deescalate the conflict.
David Luna spoke of Arizona’s experience during the past two elections with voter suppression and election denial, despite having an election system that has been proven many times to be reliable. While suppression tactics were not as extensive as expected in the 2022 elections, many polling places continued to see cases of voter intimidation, and voting was made more difficult by the placement of fewer drop-off locations and guards that inhibited some voters from participating.
Extreme gerrymandering is one of the anti-democratic activities cited by Benoy Jacob in Wisconsin. Benoy also cited the presence of many school boards in his region that have faced battles and incivility, saying that, over ten years, local governance has moved from peaceful collaboration to reflection of the conflict seen at the national level. One community, for example, Marathon County, adopted a “Community for All” resolution that faced animosity that might not have occurred previously.
Partly in response to these threats and added challenges, many communities are working to reinforce and improve local democracy, including equity, inclusion and voting rights. Portland voters recently adopted a new charter changing its form of government from a commission style, which Wendy says has made space for greater distrust, to a mayor-council form, with district council seats.
David spoke of organizing efforts in Arizona over the past several years to increase voter turnout, particularly among Latino populations, which resulted in 50,000 more Latinos voting. David also spoke of an initiative that made it possible for dreamers to attend community colleges and obtain grants, and of moderate Republicans endorsing members of the other party in an effort to weaken election deniers and other anti-democratic forces.
David and Benoy agreed that reinforcing the middle of the political spectrum is important to preserving democracy, with David speaking of “decoupling deliberation from political labels” and Benoy suggesting that, rather than starting with the extremes, communities should “build toward the middle.” Wendy said that, in many areas, what we’re facing is “issue polarization vs. affective polarization,” a case of “I might agree with you, but I don’t like you.”
Ultimately, though, Benoy said, the decline in trust among people is not as pronounced as the decline in trust in institutions. Since there is still some amount of trust among people and of local government, there’s still hope, Benoy said. “The power of community can help us overcome polarization.”