Except maybe Bob Ford.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
By Jessica Conrad
By arrangement with On The Commons
“Democracy is in trouble, no question about that,” says political theorist Benjamin Barber in the opening remarks of his TED talk earlier this year. We live in a world where immigration, terrorism, climate change, HIV, war, and markets are now cross-border problems. Yet when we look to democracy and politics for solutions, we are faced with “archaic and increasingly dysfunctional political institutions” designed for a 17th century world. Is the challenge of getting sovereign nations to agree to solutions on such polarizing issues insurmountable? Perhaps, but Barber believes we may already have a workable alternative at hand. For him, the answer surrounds nearly three-quarters of humanity: cities.
18 percent of Americans approve of Congress today; 70-80 percent of Americans approve of their mayors.
“Civilization and culture were born in cities,” he says, and the public commons spaces they harbor are “where we come together to create democracy.” Remember the series of protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where thousands of Egyptians demonstrated for political change, and the sit-in at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park against an unwanted urban development plan (which later led to protests across Turkey on a wide range of concerns). These are just two of many examples that involve citizens fighting in public spaces for their freedom—actions which lead Barber to believe that we are a uniquely urban animal.
The natural corollary, according to Barber, is that it’s time for mayors to rule the world. Mayors are pragmatists and problem solvers. They won’t allow the kind of paralysis we’re witnessing in Washington today simply because the buses must run. The sewers must drain. Barber says mayors “have to put ideology and religion and ethnicity aside” to get things done. Mayors usually are from the places they govern, and as a result, they have much higher levels of trust: while a mere 18 percent of Americans approve of Congress today, 70-80 percent of Americans approve of their mayors.
The potential of mayors seems distinctly potent compared to the political system we live with now.
Under the leadership of US mayors like Michael Bloomberg and Cory Booker cities have come together to share best practices on everything from bikesharing and pedestrian zones to climate change, says Barber. Even when nations refuse to act, there’s so much that cities can do. “The road to global democracy doesn’t run through states,” he says. “It runs through cities.”
While Barber’s thesis is compelling, it’s not hard to think of mayors who haven’t exactly acted in their cities’ best interests. Even recent history offers the examples of Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s former mayor who was convicted of corruption, and Leslie Thompson, the former mayor of Jonesboro, Louisiana who was charged with malfeasance. And yet, when considered in the light of what’s currently happening in Washington D.C., the potential of mayors seems distinctly potent compared to the political system we live with now.
Jessica Conrad is a writer and content strategist living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has been working to communicate the essence of the commons and the sharing economy since the beginnings of her career: At Sol Editions, an editorial services company focused on the natural world, innovation and design, Jessica worked as a researcher and writer for Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing, a Wall Street Journal bestselling business book. Jessica continues to write about the sharing economy for media outlets such as Minnesota Public Radio and Thirty Two Magazine. She has also been a grant writer for The Promised Land, a Peabody Award-winning public radio series featuring innovative thinkers who are transforming underserved communities. Jessica currently serves as the content and community manager at On the Commons, where she’s worked since 2011.