Decentralized political institutions increasingly play a substantial role in the lives of people, implementing services deriving from influential (elected) bodies of governance, and influencing the relative degree of civil society access to policy-making. The following paper challenges pluralist and social capitalist claims of how decentralized institutions arise and differ in their ability to function. Robert Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaela Nanetti’s (1993) book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy will provide the base from which this paper departs, utilizing comparative historical analysis to argue instead that subnational or otherwise regional and local governments entail dialectical relations within and between different levels of state institutions. Overall, this paper argues that the struggles over decentralization ultimately depend on ideological opponents and the balance of power in the struggle for political change, simultaneously affecting both political institutions and civil society participation. This paper briefly unfolds Putnam et al.’s arguments regarding the relationship between democratic institutions and civil society, followed by two case studies – France and Brazil – explaining several macrofactors influencing the processes, outcomes, and implications of decentralization. Thirdly, decentralization and multi-level governance is tied to civil society participation. Lastly, decentralization in relation to partisan objectives is discussed with reference to participatory budgeting.