The quest for political representation and local self government are as relevant today as they were at the founding of our Republic, when they were important causes that the American Revolution was fought over. In order for the American experiment in federalism and democracy to succeed in promoting the general welfare of the people and in securing the blessings of liberty, governments at all levels need to make sure that the voices of all constituents are heard and their interests represented.
Yet despite broad support for the principles of political representation and local self government across the political spectrum, and despite the fact that local government level—as the government level closest to the people—delivers key public services and provides the foundation for American system of governance, the role of local governments in our intergovernmental system is often overlooked.
Although many state constitutions acknowledge the importance of local governments, few states regularly consider whether their local governments are structured and empowered in ways that allow them to act as effective platforms for collective local decision-making. And despite tremendous changes in the size and composition of the U.S. population since World War II, only a handful of states make sure that local governments are governed in a representative, deliberative and accountable manner that lives up to the promise of local governments being “of the people, by the people, and for the people”.
Whereas local self-government and democracy are thriving in some states, there appears to be a deficit of local government empowerment and local democracy in many others. In fact, in many states, the democratic and responsive nature of local governments is often limited by state legislation: for instance, state laws may limit the powers of local governments; may cause them to be inadequately funded; may limit the number of elected representatives that comprise the local government council or board; may limit local governments from using more representative election mechanisms; and may fail to require that local governments operate in an inclusive, transparent and responsive manner.
When local governments are inadequately empowered or when local democracy deficits arise, this not only undermines the legitimacy of the local governments in question, but this may contribute to a loss of trust in government as a whole. Indeed, more than half of all Americans believe that politics and elections are controlled by people with money and by big corporations and only one out of three young Americans trusts local governments to do the right thing. In turn, in local elections across the county, fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens turn out to vote.
Instead, trust in government and the legitimacy of the public sector would be greatly enhanced if elected institutions from the local level on up—including County Commissions, School Boards and Town Councils—would be structured to represent the views and opinions of all constituents, rather than being used by special interests, local power brokers and state political parties on both sides to create geographic power monopolies in a way that pits neighbor against neighbor.
Many organizations do important work to strengthen democracy at the state and local level by encouraging citizen participation and by improving dialogue and collaboration among leaders and communities. In many cases, however, these efforts do not focus on reforms of the structure and role of local governments that may be needed to ensure that local governments are able to function as an empowered, representative, deliberative and accountable platform for local self-government.
Promoting more effective and responsive local government in the United States is a core American value that should find support across the political divide as it empowers citizens and brings government closer to the people, thereby ensuring greater accountability, reducing government inefficiency and improving service delivery.