The Joy of Watching a City Embrace Direct Democracy

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

California is an old and cynical direct democracy. We do little to make the process fairer, more inclusive or more democratic. Our machinations around initiative and referendum are almost always about winning some political advantage.

That’s why I found it so refreshing to visit Mexico City recently and get a firsthand glimpse at the establishment of direct democracy there.

This May, local legislation was introduced to establish a thoughtful regime of direct and participatory democracy for Mexico City itself. This was the latest steps in a governance transformation of North America’s greatest city.

Once treated like Washington D.C., Mexico City secured full status as a state, and got a new constitution earlier in this decade. It’s nice to have a new constitution, so you can incorporate democratic innovations.

The 96-page legislation sets up a direct democracy structure that makes it relatively easy for citizens and others to propose ideas. It also creates a supportive public infrastructure for participatory budgeting and other exercises that allow citizens to offer ideas and make decisions directly.

Support is broad and from across political parties. And the spirit of optimism about democracy in Mexico, despite the country’s many problems, is a remarkable contrast to the sour spirit we have here.

Viva Mexico City! Viva Direct Democracy!

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