Save Our Cities: It’s Time to Make America’s Urban Political Systems Far More Democratic

Back to Spring 2024: Volume 113, Number 1

By Stephen Erickson

What hope is there for our cities without fundamental change?

The disadvantaged people of urban America have long endured chronic poverty, crime, drug addiction, homelessness, corruption, failed educational systems, policing malfeasance and exorbitant housing costs.

In many cities, the blight is spreading. Since Covid and recent bouts of looting, the vitality of downtown and upscale areas is threatened by the emptying of commercial office space and the closing of retail businesses.

No one cares more about the quality of life in our cities than the people who live in them, but these folks barely turn out in local elections. It’s as if they feel powerless.

Power in American cities is centralized among small groups of professional politicians entrenched in office by campaign donations from special interests.

Isn’t this a problem? Could it be that American cities are dysfunctional because the incentives of those who govern them are not necessarily in line with the everyday people they are supposed to serve? Compared to many highly successful global cities outside of the United States, American cities simply aren’t very democratic. Cities in Switzerland, Scandinavia and Germany are governed through large popularly elected city legislatures, often including everyday citizens. Some of these foreign cities utilize decentralized democratic political structures, locating government as close to the people as possible. If adopted in the United States, some foreign systems of local elections could substantially remove the corrupting influence of money in politics. Isn’t it time to rewrite our city charters to provide America’s urban communities with far more democracy?

The shame of 19th Century Cities and how the first progressives responded

Our existing city government structures are the creations of civic leaders and scholars who faced an urban crisis no less severe than our own. They first gathered in 1894 at the National Conference for Good City Government in Philadelphia to form the National Municipal League (later renamed the National Civic League). In the following years the League mobilized amazing energy and commitment, in cities across the country, to systemically bring about a national deliberation, establish near-consensus, and enact sweeping changes to American urban political systems.

The movement’s growth was driven by muckraking investigative journalists, notably Lincoln Steffans, editor at McClure’s magazine, who compiled a series of exposés into a darkly humored book, The Shame of the Cities, which chronicled the corruption and utter failure of American city governments around the turn of the 20th Century.

What Steffans and other muckrakers revealed was a system in which party bosses ran vast patronage networks of party hacks who enriched themselves with money and power at the public’s expense. It was called “the spoils system,” it had begun during the age of Andrew Jackson, and had become so deeply entrenched that the cause of reform might have seemed utterly hopeless.

Consider the formidable obstacles progressive reformers were challenged to demolish.

The first feature of the spoils system was patronage. City jobs were handed out based on party loyalty and those who were loyal mobilized votes at election time. Competence among city employees was a secondary consideration, at best.

The franchise system was a second major source of corruption. Businessmen who wanted city contracts simply bribed the party bosses, who in turn distributed the rewards to elected officials. The public was usually then stuck with low quality yet expensive city services. As Lincoln Steffens often pointed out, the problem wasn’t poor people or supposedly foolish immigrants as some elitists asserted; it was corrupt businessmen, politicians and the system that enabled them.

No matter how bad things got, ordinary people had little recourse. Party nominees were picked by bosses in smoke-filled back rooms. Switching from one party to the other might do little good, since both the Democrats and the Republicans engaged in the same nefarious behaviors.

When an honest and relatively selfless candidate’s name appeared on a ballot, winning an election was often impossible because the parties practiced voter fraud. Party operatives padded the voters’ lists and counted the ballots, while corrupt police supervised the voting process on Election Day. The residents of some America’s cities were rendered practically powerless.

It took assassinations to break the spoils system. The killing of President Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker was the catalyst that led to national civil service reform.

Decades before that, in 1856, a committee of vigilantes purged San Francisco of its corrupt political machine after a muckraking newspaper editor was murdered.

Civil service reform at the local level, which professionalized the hiring and firing of city employees, was a critical progressive achievement that reduced the spoils system to acceptable levels. Direct primaries brought party nomination processes out of smoke-filled rooms, weakening the grip of party bosses. Most cities eventually moved to non-partisan elections, another body blow to party- based political machines. New state laws helped protect the integrity of the ballot box. Public ownership of many city services replaced the franchise system. Where cities continued to provide services through contracts with private providers, contracting processes were standardized. These were substantial successes that dramatically reduced corruption and improved the quality of life for city residents.

Tragically, however, the progressives made a terrible mistake on their way to cleaning up America’s cities. In their zeal to attack corrupt ward politics, they created a new system for municipal government that has increasingly marginalized everyday people and produced our current system, which is characterized by its own form of institutionalized corruption.

The shame of popular disempowerment

In an article published in 1917 entitled “Recent Municipal Experiments in the United States,” the Harvard scholar and progressive activist William B. Munro cheered the “commission system” for city government, which concentrated “all powers in local government, legislative and executive powers alike, in the hands of a single, small, elective body of men.” Here, unfortunately, was a perceived triumph of progressive urban reform.

The commission system was a departure from the Municipal League’s model in that it dispensed with the notion of dividing legislative and executive authority. But where these models were similar was far more significant than where they differed.

As a means of defeating the ward bosses, most all progressives agreed that the municipal governing bodies should be small, preferably with at least some of their members elected at large.

Consequently, democratic representation for America’s city residents was reduced in every major city, never to be restored again, regardless of large increases in urban populations over time.

Cities considered the birthplaces of the American Revolution ironically lost among the most representation. The numbers speak for themselves.

Philadelphia, which in 1903 had a bicameral city legislature, was governed partly through a lower house of 149 members, with a residents-to-elected-officials ratio of 18,481 to one. Philly today has a single chamber council with only sixteen members, six of whom are elected at large. Therefore, the current Philadelphia Council has ten seats elected by ward, for a ratio of 160,379 to one. The at large members are, of course, supposed to each represent the entire city’s 1,604,000 residents.

In 1903, Boston had 75 representatives for an even more democratic ratio of 7,478 residents per representative. Today there are only 13 representatives for a city of 676,000. Nine of these run in wards of 75,000 inhabitants each, with the other four at large.

New York City went from one representative per 47,000 residents in 1903, already a relatively big ratio, to one per 163,000 today. The small city council model endorsed by the progressives, and mostly unquestioned ever since, has meant that the citizens of burgeoning sunbelt cities are also, by definition, poorly represented in their city governments. San Diego has 140,000 residents per elected representative, Houston has 192,000, and Pheonix, 200,000. Los Angelenos take the top prize for technically the worst represented city dwellers in the nation, with one Los Angeles City Councilor for every 266,000 city residents. These are local governments that are supposed to be close to the people. Does anyone seriously believe this to be the case in America’s large cities?

The progressives, themselves, knew that what they were doing was questionable. Professor Munro who, again, championed the consolidation of urban political power, was fair enough to acknowledge the arguments of his opponents, who worried that “five men, chosen at large, cannot represent the varied interests, political, geographical, racial and economic, in any large municipality.” These words have since proved prophetic.

The corrupt spoils system of the 19th Century was replaced by a corrupt 20th Century system, enabled by huge electoral districts requiring boatloads of campaign cash to win them.

Hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, are now routinely raised by politically successful city council members and county commissioners. This money is donated, or rather invested, in these professional politicians by special interests. It is a system closely resembling bribery and extortion; we make it sound more innocent by calling it “influence peddling.”

This nexus of interests and professional politicians have locked everyday people out of the governing process every bit as much as in the late 19th Century, only now the rotting system is covered by a sheen of respectability, free of sloppy working people getting drunk in party-sponsored bacchanals on Election Day.

Today, only 15% of the voting population typically turns out in city elections across the country. Scholars and media lament such voter “apathy,” but could it be that city residents are rational actors who know when they are practically powerless and therefore perceive voting as a waste of time?

Leaked recording of LA city councilors reveals the quality of city leadership

In 2022, the public was given an opportunity to see how the sausage is made on the Los Angeles City Council when a secretly recorded meeting of the Council’s Latino faction was leaked to the media. The Los Angeles Times did yeoman’s work with its release of an annotated version of the transcript. Whether read as a comedy or a tragedy, the entertainment value is high, and the content revealing.

The salacious racial and ethnic slurs peppered throughout the conversation naturally attracted the most attention, which resulted in a familiar dance of public outrage, mea culpas, and one reluctant resignation from the council. But there’s so much more in these recordings, beyond racism.

The purpose of the meeting was to plot how Latino seats on the council could be increased given the proposed new electoral district maps being suggested by a supposedly “independent” commission of citizens appointed by the council itself for the purposes of redistricting. Members of the commission would eventually be removed, casting to the wind the commission’s fig leaf of independence.

Council President Nury Martinez said it all when she asserted, “people, like, feel like they are in charge of themselves. You ain’t in charge of anybody.”

She was referring to members of the redistricting commission, but the remark speaks more broadly to the city councilors’ sense of entitlement, which is palpable throughout the conversation.

They were, after all, trying to arrange city residents into configurations of electoral districts that would serve themselves. These politicians were trying to pick their voters, and not the other way around.

But just as the meeting is about more than racism, it’s also about more than gerrymandering. The recording exposes issues that run much deeper. It’s a damning indictment on our political system itself.

Councilor Gil Cedillo revealed the purpose of it all when he said, “The thing for us is to exercise power.”

“Exactly,” responded labor leader Ron Herrera, who had called the meeting. How that power is achieved is irrelevant.

Councilor Kevin De Leon agreed with Cedillo that ends justify means: “Yea, the outcome. Who cares about the process?”

During the long discussion there was plenty of time for personal talk, conversation about inevitable scandals, and the ethnic putdowns, but not once did any member of the meeting show any sign of a competing passion for solving any city problem, like poverty, housing, transportation, drug abuse or crime. They took a moment to make fun of another councilor’s solution to homelessness, but that was the extent of it.

Power comes from money. Nury Martinez would again and again return to her desire to secure electoral districts containing big economic assets for her faction. Like a general in military campaign, she wanted to take the airport.

“Billions of dollars worth of contracts at the airport,” declared Martinez. “We’re negotiating with labor on all of this shit. You want to be a baller? Go after that, because that is where the fucking money is at.”

Of course they need money. It can take $2 million to win a city council seat in Los Angeles. Raising money is the priority. It is the road to the power they crave.

Serving the city residents they are supposed to represent is a secondary consideration, at least for these city councilors, and surely for many others as well.

The meeting has been treated as a scandal but it’s only recognized as such because racist remarks were caught on tape. More tellingly, bigotry is a sign indicating the quality of leadership the system produces. The system itself is the scandal. It is the shame of our cities, in our time, and the furthest thing in the world from government of, by and for, the people.

Model global cities and best democratic practices

The founding fathers of the United States, and the progressive reformers who followed them over a hundred years later, possessed the wisdom and humility to look abroad for democratic models and best practices that could be applied to improve their own political systems.

Today, however, American thought leaders seem surprisingly incurious about the democratic systems of cities outside of the United States, particularly ones featuring large popularly elected city legislatures and decentralized democratic governing structures.

It will come as a surprise to many Americans that Swiss, German, Austrian, Nordic and a smattering of cities in other places, including Dublin, Warsaw and Cape Town, are all governed through large and highly democratic city legislatures.

Such popularly governed cities routinely appear on the Economist’s list of the world’s “most livable cities,” including Vienna, Copenhagen, Zurich and Geneva for 2023.

Zurich, Switzerland, has a 125-member legislature, or one representative for every 3,474 city residents.

Zurich’s 125-member city council, the “Gemeinderat”

Stockholm, Sweden, is governed through a 101 member legislature, or one representative per every 9,700 people.

The people of Cape Town, South Africa, are represented in an especially large legislature of 231 members, one for every 19,480 residents.

Stockholm, Zurich, and many other cities are represented in their municipal assemblies by everyday citizens, instead of professional politicians. These citizen representatives work part time and receive stipends, instead of salaries. A big city government, run by the everyday people who live there, and not professional politicians, is something Americans can only imagine.

But why couldn’t it be a reality for us? If it’s done successfully elsewhere, why can’t it work in the United States?

In Stockholm, Sweden, voter turnout regularly ranges around 75- 80 percent in local elections. The people of Stockholm seem to believe that their votes matter, so they participate.

Stockholm’s city parliament chooses the city’s executive branch, a collaborative team, in which each member oversees a different city department. The mayor chairs the meetings and oversees the city’s finance department. The whole system turns on trust and accountability, more than money and mass political marketing.

If American cities were divided into many small electoral districts based on existing neighborhoods, then city government would be truly representative. A city’s various communities would be represented in government proportionally.

Some will fear that large elected bodies are unwieldy or chaotic, and that nothing will get done (as if things are getting done now) but in fact the work of government is accomplished in committees, which out of a large assembly, can be multiplied and populated by representatives with specialized expertise and experiences drawn from the public at large.

In a large assembly, the city’s collective wisdom and desire can be applied to government far more effectively than through the prism of a few self-interested and distracted professional politicians compromised by the special interests that fund their campaigns.

The tapping, channeling, and empowering of a city’s professional diversity, with civic- minded city residents from many different backgrounds convening in a variety of committees, is ultimately the key to urban revival.

The principle of subsidiarity, which states that “decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level, or the closest to where they will have their effect,” is another best democratic practice utilized by German and Nordic cities.

The Berlin city constitution features the German tradition of subsidiarity in Article I which outlines fundamental principles. Berlin has twelve self-governing districts, each with its own assembly and mayor, mirroring the structure of the city’s central government.

These subsidiary governing city structures typically have authority over local projects, like parks and planning, and often some limited authority over social services and/or education.

Stockholm has 13 district councils and Sweden, as a general principle, pushes financial resources down to the local level as much as possible. In Sweden, local government is empowered with both authority and substantial resources.

Even limited powers are useful if those powers are real (as opposed to advisory neighborhood councils and “participatory” budgeting that condescendingly give residents pretend power) because the opportunity for self-rule at a local level involves citizens in decision-making that matters to them and the neighborhoods in which they live. Democracy that is very local develops the habits of self-government, trains up leaders for challenging tasks, and fosters community and dialogue among citizens.

America’s largest cities, and perhaps smaller ones too, could benefit from integrating systems of subsidiarity into their political structures. The largest city in the United States, New York City, contains five boroughs, each its own county. Yet unlike districts in Berlin or Stockholm, New York’s boroughs have no elected assemblies and almost no independent authority. The question is, why not? New York’s boroughs are so big that they, too, could be subdivided into quasi self-governing structures. Incorporating the principle of subsidiarity into the New York City charter would be one way to bring that city’s government, and the governments of other large American cities, much closer to the people government is supposed to serve.

Are we afraid of democracy?

The question needs to be asked.

Behind that question lies the unspoken worry that poor and uneducated people might not make wise political choices, which is certainly possible.

Of course, wealthy and supposedly educated people can make poor choices, also. And what is the alternative?

The exercise of democracy is like the exercise of muscles. Both atrophy from lack of use. With an average of 15 percent of voters participating in local urban elections, isn’t the real danger that we are losing the habit of self-government?

It’s easy to fault the progressives of a hundred years ago for discounting the importance of popular democratic representation in our cities. But those progressives cared deeply about urban life, and they moved mountains.

If we cared half as much as those first progressives, put more faith in everyday people, and creatively applied the lessons that can be learned from more successful and more democratic cities abroad, then we, in our time, could save our cities.

Stephen Erickson is the founder of Cities Rising, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to public education about best democratic practices for municipal government.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners