Between 1997 and 2002, homeowners in various parts of Los Angeles sought to secede from the City. At the same time, in Toronto, the province of Ontario forced the amalgamation of six municipalities forming a new megacity of 2.4 million. Residents mobilized for several months. In 2000, the province of Quebec forced the merger of 28 local municipalities in Montreal, forming a new city of 1.8 million. Angst came mostly from suburban Anglophone municipalities, where it was felt mergers would affect linguistic privileges. In the three cases, but stemming from different positions on the Left‐Right political spectrum, social actors claimed more local autonomy ‘in the name of local democracy’. Comparing these cases where institutional reforms and claims for local autonomy captured the political agenda, the article asks whether the use of ‘local democracy’ as a legitimizing tool for territorial claims may point to the emergence of a new generalized discursive strategy. Comparing variations in interpretations, and locating them in their respective local political cultures and in relation to the political positioning of claiming groups, highlights the processes by which socio‐political movements mobilize residents to their cause while avoiding accusations of NIMBYism. In the end, the article questions the moral tone attached to the expression ‘local democracy’.