The mountains are high and Congress is far away – so you better pay attention to how things are run in your home town.
For the fifth time in twenty years, the United States faces a once in a lifetime election. For the fifth election in a row, this election has been proclaimed the election to end all elections. The stakes have never been higher, except for four years ago, and four years before that, and for every four years, and occasionally for the midterms. And also for impeachment.
If you live in a democracy anywhere in the world, chances are you’ve heard a similar refrain in reference to your presidential or general elections as well. Time and time again we’re told that an election -usually, the one with the national government at stake- decides whether a democracy will survive or perish.
We often worry about the result of presidential elections and what they mean for a nation going forward. Trump’s election was portrayed domestically as a life or death situation, because presidential elections have become a pageant to elect the Pope of Americana, something that decides if the entire country gets to survive four more years.
More recently the elections in Poland were seen by some commentators as similarly cataclysmic . Civil strife in Belarus  further demonstrates how crucial presidential offices are to the future of a country (or have become, depending on which country you’re talking about).
The highest office of executive power is nothing to sneeze at, obviously. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chancellors, and so forth all have tremendous responsibilities and unbelievable power, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.
The truth is that national level politics in democracies are dwarfed in importance by what we see at more local levels. Democracy functions best (and indeed, can only function at all) when citizens are involved in governmental decision making at all levels. Yet it seems that much less attention is paid overall on local elections, both by the media and by the public.
Let’s discuss a recent example.
The French municipal elections were atrocious, democratically speaking: Less than half the population turned out to vote , with some cities showing turnout rates as low as 25.6%. While decreasing turnout was expected due to the ongoing pandemic, it was still remarkably lower than anticipated – down twenty points from the usual participation for these elections.
Even more surprising was the discrepancy between turnout and voter intentions: in a poll released by Ipsos, 75% of prospective voters showed moderate to high interest between the first and second round of the election, with local stakes a determining factor of whether they would go to the polling stations .
While fear of infection was a major concern, and dissuaded many from leaving their homes to fulfil their civic right, it can only explain the sizable difference in turnout between 2020 and 2014 (the year of the last municipal election in France). It cannot account for the visible decline in voter participation that started as early as 1989 .
It could be that these people claimed they were interested in municipal elections because they believed that they should be interested in local elections and they answered accordingly. This, like Covid, provides an insufficient explanation.
In truth, it seems entirely likely that, in a context where national elections decide seats on the supreme court, matters of foreign policy, and the national media debates of the day, elections that center on marginal tax rates, garbage collection and funding for community centers seem increasingly inconsequential. There is a structural issue, a core dysfunction: the highest seats of power are seen as the only ones that matter.
The lifeline of democracies is local: The degree of responsibility for consequences for a given vote is, generally, equal to the degree of removal from the office that is subject to vote. In other words, the higher the office, the less direct responsibility citizens may feel for whatever happens when who they voted for wins. When combined with an environment where the prestigious, this lack of perceived agency results in disinterest with more mundane issues. As soon as citizens stop caring for issues that have direct impacts on their lives or livelihoods, systemic rot sets in.
If you elect a warmonger, you don’t necessarily ever suffer the consequences in your daily life. But if you elect a destructive mayor, you will see quite directly the effects of your choice. Urban planning, school districts, night life (peaceful, quiet, or otherwise), cultural events, cleanliness, public transportation… All these things are directly influenced by the decisions of mayors or whichever highest chair there is in the city hall (with varying degrees of delegation, obviously). These are also issues that tie in heavily with perceived quality of life and individual happiness.
Political systems don’t die from a few odd national-level elections if their institutions are otherwise stable. Presidents can indeed do a lot but they can’t enact laws or enforce them on their own. As such, it’s fundamental that people be engaged in their local politics: if they give disproportionate weight to what happens at national or international levels than they do to what happens to their neighbourhoods, towns, cities, that engagement gets muddled and lost in translation. However, they do suffer the consequences of their disinterest in local politics through failing institutions and corrupt politicians.
This phenomenon highlights the fundamental truth of democracies: that they’re built from citizen engagement as opposed to technocratic orchestration; a polity can only ever exist because of the population that constitutes it. Therefore the single most important indicator of democratic stability is the citizen, in fact, the average voter. Why? As average, he/she represents the minimum threshold of citizen engagement in a given political system.
In democracies, that engagement comes, for the most part, in the form of varying levels of representation. Democracy works in orders of magnitude, increasingly remote from the individual citizen. The higher one goes, the more complex it is to truly determine how the stakes which are submitted to vote are going to affect us, or why we should even care in the first place.
The effectiveness of that representation is then the crux of the problem. Every recent grassroots discontent towards national leadership (in various countries -France, the US, the UK…) expressed a sentiment that one is not being properly represented by governments, be it the Yellow Vest movement, Occupy Wall Street, Brexiteers and the European Parliament, the Tea Party, etc.
Putting the focus back on local issues could solve this feeling of a lack of representation. After all, representation comes in many forms: not just presidential and congressional offices, school boards and neighbourhood councils. These are democratic in their own right, and reconciling citizens with lower levels of democracy can help to solve the disconnect between political elites and the broader population.
This isn’t to say that voters have no place in issues of national concern; they do: Voters are absolutely entitled to their interest in and perspectives on these societal or supra-societal questions. It is their legitimate right, even their duty to an extent. Problems occur when this interest surpasses by too much the interest they allocate to issues nearer to them. The reverse is much less problematic.
In fact, privileging local politics to national politics looks to be a blueprint for success. That is, at least, what the Seasteading Institute believes . The project’s basic principle is to be able to experiment with political innovations that would be impossible with current structures of governance, in order to solve complex issues and create, essentially, a myriad of societies allowing political trial and error on a massive scale . How? Simple: Seasteading aims to create autonomous, variable geometry floating cities .
That is, cities built on water that would allow citizens to pick and choose where they want to live based on the political system put in place. The way it would work would be essentially to have each city consist of detachable residences, so to speak, able at any moment to navigate to another city if the grass is greener.
Seasteading is in essence trying to emulate something that has already happened, only on a larger scale. From the economic success of Chinese Special Economic Zones  and formerly free  Hong Kong, to city-state powerhouses like Singapore, city-based economic and political autonomy has shown, at the very least, tremendous potential.
If anything, they are a proof of concept that who lives in a given territory is a key factor in how that territory evolves. You don’t have to imagine cities on legs to see it: Gentrification, ghettoization, those are also illustrations of the shifts in social, political, or economic structures that changes in population can create.
There are admittedly some cases, in heavily centralised governments, where local politics are almost subservient to national politics, but there are fewer cases still where municipalities are entirely irrelevant in what they can accomplish autonomously. It would be inconceivable, after all, to decide the budget of a city at the national level, for instance.
Seasteading is an unorthodox solution to this broad problem. By rolling local and national-level choices into individual action, it finds a way to emphasise the stakes that every voter has in their country’s future.
As members of landbased nation-states, we can’t just float away. But we can aim for the same type of improvement by righting the ship that’s closest to us; a voyage that starts not in Congress, but in city hall.
- Mounk, Yascha, “The End of Democracy in Poland”, Persuasion, July 14 2020
- “Belarus protesters gather for biggest ever opposition rally – in pictures”, The Guardian, August 16 2020
- Elections municipales françaises de 2020 (Participation rates), Wikipedia.fr
- “Après le second tour, bilan et perspectives”, Ipsos, June 28 2020
- Municipal elections participation rates from 1959 to 2020, France-politique.fr
- O’Neill, Margot, Andersen, Brigid, “Floating countries of the future – this could be your new home”, ABC News, March 14 2017
- “Seasteading! Whose Laws?”, Seasteading Institute
- Tran, Jake, “Floating Cities: The Future of Civilization”, Youtube, July 15 2020
- “Special Economic Zone”, Encyclopedia Britannica
- “Hong Kong security law: What is it and is it worrying?”, BBC, June 30 2020