I Wrote The Magna Carta, And You Can Too

The city of Rome assigned an American journalist to write a new grand charter for “democracy cities.” It went very differently than he expected.

Mia Angioy for Noema Magazine

Joe Mathews is a fellow in the Berggruen Institute’s Renovating Democracy program, a California columnist at Zócalo Public Square and the founder-publisher of the new planetary publication, Democracy Local.

“A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” — W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up” (1938)

Late one Friday night in Rome, the phone rang in my closet-sized hotel room. My son’s second-grade teacher was calling from California to discuss his in-class behavior. I tried to engage. But I was tired and agitated because I planned to be up all night writing a very strange document for public release the next morning.

“I can’t talk anymore!” I told her. “I’m in Rome, it’s the middle of the night, and I’m writing the Magna Carta!”

Then I hung up.

For the record, this was no made-up excuse. I really was writing the Magna Carta.

In recounting this story, I want to make clear I’m not bragging. I completed the task with little enthusiasm. But I did learn some lessons. 

First, when you write the Magna Carta, don’t procrastinate until the night before the deadline.

Second, the Magna Carta will surprise you. Despite my initial reluctance, my Magna Carta turned out well and taught me about the untapped power of writing, and the democratic dreams of local communities.

A Great & Local Charter

To be clear, I did not write the famous Magna Carta (often seen as “Magna Charta,” with an “h,” and translated from Latin to “Great Charter”) that we learn about in our history books. That one, signed in 1215, established limits on the divine rights of monarchy and provided the foundation for our modern liberties and democracy. 

This new Magna Carta, the one I wrote, is a response to the hard questions that local communities now face about 21st-century threats. How do they assert their rights and defend local democracy from rising authoritarianism? How do they master their own destinies in the face of digital transformation and overwhelming power? And how might they solve planetary problems that threaten their lives and homes? 

Over the past two generations, such big questions have fallen increasingly to small, local governments. Why? Because our national governments have collectively failed to build the planetary institutions necessary to solve Earth’s biggest problems, from climate change to pandemics, corruption to poverty. They have also failed to protect democracy within their own borders, producing a pronounced democratic decline.

These twin failures have produced a massive void in governance that lower-level bodies have been compelled to fill. Some ambitious sub-national governments, like Quėbec, California or Guangdong, have stepped in and developed global policies on climate. But the most aggressive void fillers have been the world’s municipal governments — especially major cities.

Cities are stepping up to bigger challenges because of growing pressure from their inhabitants, who have grown more educated and wealthier. Residents increasingly expect their municipal governments to protect them from both national authoritarianism and the local consequences of planetary problems.

As a result, many local governments find themselves under pressure to be the primary unit of democracy and to develop the capacity and power to solve any problem, at any level. But city governments still lack the power, resources and legal authority that nation-states have for such broad governance.

In the early 21st century, cities have responded to planetary challenges by networking among themselves to produce “translocal” policies. For example, Jakarta and Rotterdam, two cities with considerable land below sea level, are working together on climate and sea-level policy, as Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman detail in their new book, “Children of a Modest Star: Planetary Thinking for an Age of Crisis.”

But many global cities are eager to move beyond the ad hoc to establish more permanent collaborations and new structures of governance that are both local and planetary. This requires new rules and new understandings of governance — and like in 1215, a new charter.

In Rome, a change in the city’s leadership meant an opening for those eager to draft a planetary charter. 

That’s how the new Magna Carta became my problem.

Why Rome?

Swiss-Swedish journalist Bruno Kaufmann and I went to Rome in 2018 to organize our annual conference, the “Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy,” for that fall. 

We had met in 2006 while covering Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and discovered that the two of us shared a deep interest in direct democracy, a feature of the governing systems in both my home state of California and his native country, Switzerland.

In 2008, we started the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, an event (eventually housed at a nongovernmental organization in Cologne, Germany) to pull together scholars, journalists and practitioners who work with democratic processes that allow people to make decisions for themselves.

“Residents increasingly expect their municipal governments to protect them from both national authoritarianism and the local consequences of planetary problems.”

We designed the Global Forum to be free and open to all. Direct democracy and related participatory processes were growing worldwide, and our forum grew as well. Over the years, many local-level officials and activists showed up without invitation, looking for ways to use local democracy to solve problems in their communities and beyond.

Such municipal urgency surged during the 2010s. The political theorist Benjamin Barber published his best-selling book “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities” in 2013. Kaufmann and I saw firsthand how local governments, often in the face of national authoritarianism, were working together to make each other more democratic. 

In Seoul, the late Mayor Park Won-Soon created local think tanks inside city government to export Seoul’s democratic innovations to global metros from Delhi to Kampala. In Barcelona, then-Mayor Ada Colau put everyday people and activists in charge of decision-making, a model Colau dubbed the “Fearless City.” In Tunis, I convened activists and scholars to fashion plans to re-establish local governments after the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship in 2011. In Helsinki, Kaufmann joined thousands of city workers in playing the highly creative Participation Game, which teaches the dynamics of democratic processes from public meetings to participatory budgeting

In 2017, Kaufmann, himself a representative of his local government in Falun, Sweden, launched a 200-day world tour, visiting 80 cities to document their democratic practices.

Among the local officials he met during this tour were members of the Five Star Movement, which won Rome’s city elections in 2016. Kaufmann quickly made a deal with them to hold our 2018 Global Forum in Rome.

Five Star, a political party founded in 2009, was born and raised online, mostly in a comedian’s blog. After 2015, its endorsements, policymaking, and fundraising were all conducted by its own members through a robust digital platform, Rousseau, named for the philosopher who said politics should reflect the people’s will. 

As a movement, it seemed up for anything that would shake up the democratic status quo. As the political activist Davide Casaleggio, who created Rousseau, wrote for Noema, “Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.”

What should replace nation-state representative democracy? In Rome, Five Star’s answer was a dream; the party would create a network of highly democratic cities that would empower their citizens to rule directly and seek to make policy globally, with people in other cities worldwide. 

In spring 2018, the Assemblea Capitolina — Rome’s City Council — voted to take a first step towards that vision, by creating a new global charter for “democracy cities” committed to protecting democracy and the world’s problems. The motion, labeled Article 109, “commits the Mayor and the Assemblea Capitolina to adopt acts to promote the realization of a ‘Magna Charta’ on direct and participatory democracy for the cities of the world.” 

After the Five Star-dominated city council approved the 2018 motion to create a Magna Carta, party politicians reached out to Kaufmann and me while we worked on the Global Forum.

They wanted a document that other cities could sign to designate themselves as part of this network of “democracy cities.” 

But city officials didn’t want to write the document themselves and subject it to the vagaries of Roman politics. They wanted an outsider — a professional writer and native English speaker to write the document in English. I got an email from city staffers assigning me the intimidating task.

I looked for a way out. I said I was too busy. I pointed out that I was a Southern California journalist, not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar.  But the mayor’s team made clear that because Rome was hosting our Forum, I couldn’t say no. Rome had offered us its gorgeous 12th-century City Hall, which sits atop Capitoline Hill and above the ancient Roman Forum. City officials made clear: If we wanted the palazzo, I’d have to write the Magna Carta.

They gave me little guidance. When I asked my city liaison Angelo Sturni about Rome’s preferred format or structure for the document, he emailed back: “I have no answers as it is not within my competence.”

Riccardo Fraccaro, a Five Star politician and Italy’s first minister of direct democracy, told me not to worry. Maybe, he suggested, I could take the original Magna Carta and copy that.

“In Rome, a change in the city’s leadership meant an opening for those eager to draft a planetary charter.”

A First Draft

I tried to turn to the “original” Magna Carta for inspiration. But it turns out, there is no such, or even singular, Magna Carta.

Early versions consist of long lists of 60-plus provisions setting out rules that respond to feudalism and other perceived problems of 13th century England (including animal husbandry, weights and measures, wine, women, imprisonment, and Jews).

Not quite useful for a modern-day Magna Carta. But the context and published history of it did feel relevant to me, personally. Just as I was being pressured to write the new Magna Carta, the first Magna Cartas came into being only under coercion.

In 1215, England’s politically weakened King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede by some 40 barons angry at his proposed tax increases. But months later, the Pope, after lobbying by the king, canceled it. 

Still, the document somehow endured.

The document would be repeatedly altered and republished until 1225, after which it disappeared from public conversation for decades. Then in 1297 an updated version of the Magna Carta was entered in the Statute Rolls of England. The document wasn’t proclaimed publicly in English until 1300, a version that contains its frequently quoted provision:

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

Those words were nice, but rarely enforced. After 1300, the Magna Carta largely fell into irrelevance. There was a brief revival in the 1600s by Sir Edward Coke, an attorney general who unsuccessfully invoked the Magna Carta to oppose the Stuart kings. In the UK, the Magna Carta became all but a dead letter; only four of its provisions remain on the books. But, like mediocre English things, from Christmas fruitcakes to the boy band “One Direction,” the Magna Carta became famous because Americans became fans. 

In the runup to their revolution, Americans quoted Coke and invoked the Magna Carta to challenge the direct taxation of the Stamp Act imposed on the colonies by parliament and the King. In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine urged Americans to write their own Magna Carta, “to frame a Continental Charter, or Charter of the United Colonies (answering to what is called the Magna Charta of England).” The Constitution’s framers answered Paine’s call.  Since the 19th century, more than 40 U.S. states have included the Magna Carta’s text, in full or in part, in their laws.

In the 20th century, the Magna Carta was the cited inspiration for international documents, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rome’s City Council specifically mentioned that universal declaration in the motion calling for a new Magna Carta.

Night Of The Writing

With pressure mounting, the night before it was due, I tried framing my Magna Carta as an open letter. 

This is the first draft of a new Magna Charta for a new age of

democracy. It is also an open and ongoing invitation to people all over the world: to join together in a new and great collaboration to make our cities more democratic…

But it wasn’t enough. Sometime after midnight, heavily caffeinated, I bowed to the genre conventions of the Magna Carta and began a list. For inspiration, I read popular Buzzfeed listicles.

I started with a rhetorical question that attempted to answer the question: “What is a ‘democracy city’?”

The Magna Carta was my middle-of-the-night list of attempted answers.

  1. First of all, we believe that democracy cities are places where people never stop working to become more democratic.
  1. Democracy cities are searchers. They experiment. They seek ways, new and old, proven and unproven, to deepen participation. Democracy cities are never satisfied with today’s democratic advances — because they are too busy working on tomorrow’s. 
  1. A democracy city seeks to create physical spaces where people can be with each other, talk with each other, discuss with each other, and make democratic decisions together, freely and safely. In democracy cities, these spaces may take any number of forms, from previously abandoned buildings, to libraries, to schools, to streets reclaimed from brutal traffic, to centers that are explicitly houses of democracy. 
  1. A democracy city is a place where citizens — be they the city’s elected officials, staff, or volunteers — are always available to assist people when they seek to participate.
“I started with a rhetorical question that attempted to answer the question: What is a ‘democracy city’?”
  1. A democracy city is always developing infrastructure — human, physical, digital infrastructure — for participation and democracy. And a democracy city works to make that infrastructure open and transparent — so that the infrastructure can itself be refined and altered by the people to better serve democracy and participation.
  1. A democracy city works not only to educate and train youth for democracy but also to give young people, even those not old enough in the vote, real democratic power, especially over the issues that affect them most.
  1. A democracy city is a place where people can connect with neighbors and strangers alike as they nurture and create social movements that change the world.
  1. In a democracy city, citizens work together to participate not just at the local level but to find ways to participate at the regional, national and transnational levels of democracy.
  1. A democracy city encourages people to participate in decision-making in every step of developing policymaking — from proposals, to research, to debate, to the decision in the end.
  1. A democracy city allows voters to cast their ballots with ease.
  1. Elections in a democracy city include all people, residents and stakeholders, including those who might be excluded by national governments.
  1. At the same time, a democracy city and its people know that elections are not enough. A democracy city listens to all voices in the time between elections.
  1. A democracy city doesn’t just permit citizens to offer their ideas for legislation, constitutions, regulation or other aspects of the city. Such a city welcomes proposals, seeks out these ideas, and helps citizens fashion their ideas into accessible formats for consideration of the people.
  1. A democracy city guarantees its people the power to propose and enact laws (regulations) and constitutions (charters) themselves, via tools of modern direct democracy like initiative and referendum and via tools of participatory democracy, like participatory budgeting. Democracy cities design these tools in ways that encourage deliberation and participation by everyone.
  1. A democracy city seeks to make accessible all tools necessary for citizenship in reliable digital spaces.
  1. A democracy city protects the rights of minorities and seeks diverse representation and parity between genders, races, ages, and geographies not just in elected office or staff but in public participation as well.
  1. A democracy city has diverse and reliable sources of news and context to help the people govern themselves.
  1. A democracy city is a place of happy losers. That means that, after a decision is taken, the losing side in the debate feels like they were heard, and had a fair chance to participate.
  1. And while a democracy city takes its own path to greater democracy, a democracy city is also eager to learn lessons from other cities. Democracy is a conversation that never ends.

There were just 19 items on my list. I had been pithier than the English barons.

I finished just after 6 a.m. and sent it to city officials and Forum co-organizers, feeling like an undergraduate submitting a term paper just before it’s due.

In the final plenary at 11 a.m., I read the Magna Carta aloud, groggily struggling with a European keyboard as I took down the audience’s suggested changes. Over an hour, several members of the audience pleaded for additions of their favorite ideas. An attendee from Taipei wanted to add his plan for “negative voting.” A Moldovan activist proposed a plea for the end of Russian influence. These changes were put to a voice vote of the attendees.

Neither the Taiwanese nor Moldovan suggestions were adopted. But four other proposed items were approved by the Forum and added to the Magna Carta. Two came from a Viennese energy consultant:

A democracy city is a place where citizens can make decisions upon any topic or issue upon which politicians can decide. Citizens and politicians are equals. 

In a democracy city, the rules for participation and democracy are decided by the people themselves. And a democracy city protects its democratic practices and procedures from national governments that would seek to overrule or void its democracy. 

Multiple attendees demanded an explicit mention of sustainability, which produced: 

A democracy city supports sustainability through participatory instruments because there’s no future democracy without sustainability.

And a city administrator from southern Italy successfully proposed the addition that local governments be given more power, people and money: 

A democracy city needs resources to implement what citizens have decided upon, and citizens need to be able to understand and control how those resources are spent.

“There were soon, and still are, multiple versions of the Magna Carta out there — just as there had been with the old Magna Carta from the 1200s.”

At the final reception, on a balcony overlooking the ancient Forum, I felt relieved. I was finally done with the Magna Carta. No one would give a second look to a document that I had slapped together in the middle of the night, right?

Surprising Reach

Of course, I was wrong.

Kaufmann sent the text to everyone he knew. Democracy International, an NGO in Germany, pushed the Magna Carta out on social media and arranged translations in various European languages. Kaufmann suggested having cities sign onto the Magna Carta and join an “International League of Democracy Cities.”

Back home in Los Angeles, my email and WhatsApp overflowed with requests from city officials and activists worldwide for a copy of the Magna Carta. Many of those who wrote me suggested bespoke edits and translations.

That’s how I ended up signing off on the Munich city parliament’s translation of the Magna Carta into German, and the Taipei council’s translation into Chinese (both languages I do not speak). After Kaufmann traveled to Reykjavik to meet with more than 100 local government staffers, I was deluged with suggestions from the Icelandic capital for additions to the document (to emphasize fighting misinformation). In response, I urged them to refashion the Magna Carta however they wished. (I needed to get back to my paying job; the Global Forum was a volunteer effort.)

There were soon, and still are, multiple versions of the Magna Carta (often with the “h” of Charta) out there — just as there had been with the old Magna Carta from the 1200s.

When I asked local officials and activists why they cared so much about this Magna Carta, their answers fit into two categories: First, my document explicitly empowered cities to defend and extend democracy. Second, it said that everyday people, operating locally, should have the resources and authority to do whatever they wanted.

Those two ideas were profoundly attractive to local operators who felt hamstrung by rules, politics, intrusive and incompetent national governments, and a lack of resources.

To explain the Magna Carta’s appeal, a Seoul official recommended the book “Reclaiming Local Democracy,” by the former Westminster, UK city planner Ines Newman, in which she wrote of local government: 

Increasingly, over the last 30 or 40 years, the preoccupation has not been on fundamental values, democracy and justice. Nor has the focus been on how local government can learn, respond make a difference, and win legitimacy. Rather, it has been on efficiency and effectiveness, on meeting targets set by central governments, and coping with public expenditure cuts. 

My little document was a small opening toward change that cities were seizing. Cities across Italy said they would sign onto the Magna Carta. So did Seoul. And Mexico City.

Other cities wanted to meet with Kaufmann and me. Madrid signed on after Kaufmann talked extensively with councilor Pablo Soto Bravo and participation director Miguel Arana Catania. Budapest Mayor Gergely Szilvester Karascony began using the Magna Carta in his City Diplomacy Academy. Valongo, Portugal, adopted an edited Portuguese version of the Magna Carta into its local regulations.

The city I heard from the most, though, was a place I had never heard of before: Brno in the Czech Republic. Shortly after I wrote the Magna Carta, Brno had municipal elections. In the agreement for the new ruling coalition, a young official who attended the Forum managed to insert the Magna Carta and an endorsement of its principles. 

In fall 2019, our Global Forum was heading to Taiwan, and cities across Asia — Kashiwa, Japan and Bogor, Indonesia, among them — reached out. The mayor of Taichung, Taiwan, signed the Magna Carta, and then lost his re-election (for unrelated reasons). But the former mayor was appointed Taiwan’s national transportation minister and provided us with a train to tour Taiwanese cities and talk about the Magna Carta. For on-board entertainment, the ministry booked a team of mimes and puppeteers. One mime took a printed copy of the Magna Carta, folded it, and ate it.

The Magna Carta drew so much interest that we added an extra event to the Global Forum, a “Democracy City Summit,” in downtown Taipei. Taipei’s mayor, the surgeon and political independent Ko Wen-je, presided. The mayor, who believed that Chinese and Taiwanese cities, could build the collaborative relationship that eluded their national leaders, told me that he was taking the Magna Carta to his meetings with Chinese mayors, to use as an icebreaker. Chinese city governments were desperate for more local power to self-govern, he said.

“My little document was a small opening toward change that cities were seizing.”

The city summit concluded with a ceremony to sign the Magna Carta. Representatives from Brno, Helsinki, Tunis, Kashiwa, Mexico City and Bern, Switzerland attended. The mayor of Anyang, South Korea, a city of 600,000, signed on and declared that he would host the International League of Democracy Cities. 

Planning for the league (which was supposed to host exchanges of local participation officials) came to a halt with the pandemic’s arrival. But inquiries about, and editing of, the document never stopped.

In 2021, Bern gave the document a new format, as clear and clean as a Swiss lake. That’s the version most like what you will find online today. It boils the Magna Carta down to 20 short “dimensions” of what it means to be a local democracy.

1. Democratisation as a permanent task.

2. Room for dialogue

3. Democracy as parity: no double standards for elected officials and citizens 

4. Infrastructure of participation

5. Protection of local self-determination

6. A voice for young people

7. Social movements as engines of democracy. 

8. From the local to the national and transnational

9. Agenda 2030 in practice: sustainability

10. Participation as a process: encouraging and promoting participation in all stages of development

11. Enforcement and transparency

12. Elections made easy: simple voting

13. Every resident is also a citizen. (voting rights for those excluded from national elections)

14. Every vote is heard (not just during elections but year-round)

15. Democracy Support for the development of ideas of the citizens

16. Modern direct democracy (citizens themselves can propose and enact laws and


17. Open governance: Digital access to information 

18. Representation of the under-represented: 

19. Media and public infrastructure (diverse and reliable sources of news and context to help the people to govern themselves)

20. City of the “happy losers.”

In fall 2022, our Global Forum convened again, in Lucerne, Switzerland. In a historic City Hall next to the Chapel Bridge, another nine cities signed the document, along with a few multinational organizations of municipalities.

But the surprise came during presentations by the signing cities. The governments of Amsterdam and Lucerne had started evaluating themselves on each item in the Magna Carta’s list. Lucerne even produced a color-coded grid to indicate its progress on all 20 Magna Carta dimensions. When I saw this very serious and official grid and thought of my half-hearted writing during that Rome all-nighter, I had to stifle a laugh.

The Magna Carta spread around the world, without much effort on our part. Occasionally, Kaufmann and I talked about promoting the document, but we rarely followed through — our paying jobs took precedence. Back in 2020, I sent the document to about 100 American municipalities, as well as the National League of Cities. I got just two replies: a curious call from an Austin city councilman and a note from the Beverly Hills mayor signing on.

We still hear from cities that want to sign. Last year, Merida, the largest city in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, held a Democracy City Summit during which another dozen cities signed on. But the Magna Carta is just one of many similar statements of local democratic commitment circulating the planet now.

Our Magna Carta helped inspire more serious efforts to chart a new planetary governance led by localities. In 2020, with Kaufmann’s assistance, an NGO called the European Capital of Democracy was launched in Vienna. It holds an annual competition to be the European Capital of Democracy. (Barcelona is the reigning champion). That’s the carrot — to get cities to participate. But to join the contest, one must join a network of cities that commit to work together on democratization and worldwide governance — innovative processes, online exchanges and information sharing.

“Cities are incubators for democracy,” says the European Capital of Democracy website. “They are best placed to safeguard and develop our self-government, protect the rule of law and uphold human rights.  When I visited the network’s director in Vienna last fall, we talked about how the “capital of democracy” model might be adopted around the world.

To a similar end, the largest municipal organization in the world, the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) has been circulating a document with the same spirit as my Magna Carta, but with broader ambition.

The Pact for the Future of Humanity” was first written at a UCLG meeting in Daejeon, South Korea in late 2022. Its 22 pages address various planetary challenges but focus on two points that were central to my Magna Carta: that local governments are defenders of democracy, and that local entities must have the power and resources to solve planetary problems. 

The pact, in its own words, places “local democracy at the heart of action, stressing the importance of representation and participation; inclusivity and empowerment in decision-making instances, the urgent need to restore transparency, honesty and accountability at all levels of government as a means to rebuild a more representative, inclusive and efficient multilateral system.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.