IF THIS WERE 1918, 1935, OR EVEN 1960, the fact that we would be having a discussion about the importance of mayors would seem somewhat irrelevant. Even big city mayors in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto, or Montreal, though they acted tough, were easily overpowered by higher levels of government.
Those were the days when societal problems were huge – massive immigration, poverty, corruption, gangs, over crowding – and it was perceived that the big challenges required big governments. That wasn’t an incorrect assessment, as sweeping changes and resources were introduced from senior levels of government that gave the sense that society could overcome anything. There were railroads, an expanding network of airports, revamped harbours, social programs, corporate legislation, and even putting people into outer space. Cities benefitted from such initiatives because, well, cities were increasingly becoming the places where not only the most people lived, but which had the raw talent necessary to complete the great tasks.
Yet in all that great rush to progress, mayors merely cut the ceremonial ribbons and welcomed the political bigwigs who proceeded to make their vast announcements. The infrastructure projects were so huge (think the Hoover Dam or the St. Lawrence Seaway) that society benefitted from such an infusion of cash into public services for decades.
Until, that is, the senior levels of government lost their influence and began permitting the infrastructure to deteriorate year after year. Roads, bridges, railway lines, harbour bottoms, remote airstrips, social and education programs, post offices, government services – all these, following years of cutbacks, now stand on a precarious footing. Times had changed and the wealth generated by larger corporations was increasingly being located in other parts of the world than Canada. Now the grand visions that built nations are rarely housed in senior levels of government, and the citizenry has become more pessimistic and jaded as a result.
Things are now changing, and not so subtly. In the U.S., 75% of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP) now comes from municipalities. That provides cities with more leverage power. But there’s more. While higher political levels become increasingly paralyzed by partisanship and a commensurate loss of voter interest, local levels of politics are witnessing increasing activities of citizen engagement. The forsaking of domestic interests by senior powers in government has opened the door for opportunity at local levels that mayors can leverage into dynamic communities.
It’s not as though we aren’t witnessing this phenomena in real time. Not only are senior levels of politics fading (they could come back, but only with vision and courage), cities themselves are rapidly on their way to become the incubators of the democracy of tomorrow.
Despite the fact that federal governments still talk about things like climate change, immigrant settlement, infrastructure, trade, and social equity, it’s really cities that are combining their efforts to actually do something about such issues. And that’s because they can, even if in a more limited form. And they can do so because citizens themselves are connecting more with their local governments than any other level of politics or bureaucracy. This frequently provides mayors with cachet, provided they discover the ability to connect with the citizenry in more intimate and dynamic fashions.
In all matters of public life, cities are finding new areas of purpose and enlightenment, as citizens themselves move forward into positions of leadership and responsibility. Cities are the new breeding grounds for innovation and ideas – a resource mayors must tap into if they hope to grab second terms or succeed in pulling their municipalities out of decades of neglect. Mayors like that are shaking up the political firmament and they often build the very constituency that backs their efforts.
Politicians from senior levels still have to compete locally for votes, regardless of whether they operate in some distant parliament. For citizens and their political representatives to demand better is less of a risk now, since they are getting ever-smaller slices of the pie anyway.
As President Obama’s chief strategy advisor put it recently, “I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they will take them in whatever shapes, sizes and colours they come in.” And again we note the same truth in these words that we have been alluding to for months: it is most often citizens that want the leaders and not leaders so much valuing citizens that is the key democratic story of our times. And it just so happens that most citizens live in our cities.