Democratic Public or Populist Rabble: Repositioning the City amidst Social Fracture


The current degree of social fracture that has attended the growing prevalence of populist movements calls into question the viability of democratic practices grounded in collective deliberation. Urban practitioners committed to democratic inclusion must confront the practical question of how to deal with a divided public. Any such effort must address longstanding and mutually reinforcing trends that have both aggravated social fragmentation and enabled the rise of populist regimes whose policies exacerbate divisiveness and inequity. These trends include economic restructuring and rising inequality, cultural division, and a post‐truth trap resulting from disagreement over epistemological and ontological assumptions. We argue that, while local governments can play a role in addressing these dynamics, a more fundamental renewal of a meaningfully democratic polity depends on a capacity to help cultivate solidarity across difference. We then recast the city as a site of political encounter and experimentation that might enable both a re‐examination of prevailing modes of public engagement and the emergence of solidarities and infrastructures through which populism might be challenged. Finally, we consider how a progressive urban politics of place might use populism as a point of departure for transforming urban futures.