Does Democracy Translate Between Zip Codes? by Tommi Poe
On February 12th, I drove out to Kirkwood, Missouri to sit in on their monthly Human Rights Commission meeting. Located roughly 20 minutes away from Saint Louis University’s main campus, the Commission met to discuss upcoming projects in the community and to work to address the needs of people living and working in the area. This Commission and those in attendance gave me slight hope in democracy in the modern age that may not translate across municipality lines.
The St. Louis region can be divided into two main sections. St. Louis City and St. Louis County. St. Louis County has 88 individual municipalities, Kirkwood would be an example. Each has its own police force, schools, and city legislatures. While the number of municipalities are decreasing in St. Louis County, many still are thriving and growing. With its own city council, Kirkwood appoints a commission that is dedicated to “promote the value of diversity and the elimination of discrimination, to provide educational opportunities for the Kirkwood community, and to facilitate enhanced community connections.”
Because of the body’s devotion and proximity to the community, they are able to discuss the issues within the community and focus on the most pressing complications. The nine members of this board meet with community members, facilitate essay contests for scholarships, distribute awards for those working in human rights advocacy, and plan an annual conference to promote human rights in the area.
On the night that I attended, seven members of the Commission were present. Both men and women served on the board, they all seemed to identify as white and were slightly older. I believe the youngest member on the board may have been in her late 30s while others appeared to be between the ages of 55 and 70. All lived in the Kirkwood area and a few required different medical devices to get around. Overall, the members lined up to represent the demographics of the region. There were five guests, including me. Apart from a friend and myself, the other spectators were probably in their 50s or 60s. The woman who sat next to me seemed to be a regular. All the Commission members knew her by name. I spoke with her and she mentioned she was interested in joining the Commission. Everyone in the room seemed ready to work and to work together. All seemed pretty optimistic that through preexisting structures of democracy and funding they could find a way to address issues in their community. Members often addressed the audience and asked for opinions on issues.
The Commission had a pretty healthy discussion where people were excited to make a difference and believed that this institution was the way to do so. One woman had taken inspiration from another group in Tennessee, employing proven methods of collaboration to incorporate businesses and individuals into solving housing problems. There was discourse between speakers and Commission members. There was push back and bureaucracy, but ultimately people were going through democratic and established institutions to get to an end goal. People were highly engaged with each other and working to address issues, they just realized this might come with some disagreement on the best way to pursue.
These scenes of a group of democratically appointed people working to improve their local life helps illustrate why this commission on a Tuesday night in a little room of a city hall building is hope for the preservation of democracy, at least in Kirkwood, today. Using Zakaria’s (1997) definition of a “liberal democracy”, we come to believe that democracy is more than the presence of free and fair elections. Rather, it is the preservation of civil and social rights. The right to a free and fair media, to impartial courts, to discourse in a public space to improve one’s life and their community. The Kirkwood Human Rights Commission comes together to use its preexisting institutions to better the lives of its citizens and share its progress. While this is a wholesome mindset, it is not universal across the municipalities, let alone the world.
There are certain aspects of Kirkwood that allow them to thrive in ways that make democracy easier to carry out. Following the argument of Lipset (1959), Kirkwood is pretty well off. In Lipset’s (1959) modernization theory, the strong economy of the municipality encourages stable democracy. Kirkwood’s median household income is over $77k, the unemployment rate is 3.2%, and 36% of residents over the age of 25 at least hold a Bachelor’s degree. This is a vast difference from the municipality that St. Louis is perhaps best known for, Ferguson, Missouri, where the median household income is just over $41k. The wealthier communities like Kirkwood can take the time it requires for democratic institutions to produce an end result while others do not have this belief in the system.
This privilege of wealth and the comfort of being able to have patience in one’s institution is one that could call into issue the value of Zakaria’s (1997) definition of a liberal democracy that can sometimes be perceived as only functioning in the United States and western Europe. I believe that we can also extend this thinking to St. Louis City and St. Louis County. The luxury that is afforded to wealthier municipalities is not often afforded to those of lower incomes and the belief in democratic legitimate declines as the government cannot address the issues of its constituents. While attending the Human Rights Commission’s meeting this month, I saw a glimmer of hope for democracy in local politics. I do not know if my belief in the effectiveness of the system would be the same if I would have visited a different St. Louis city hall that night.
Those on the Commission have the time to go through institutions to address issues. One of the speakers at the meeting I attended was from a local church that encouraged social justice advocacy on the principle that racism is a sin. While I feel many agree with this statement and feel that racial injustice and inequality in St. Louis is a human rights issue that must be addressed, the ways that different communities work through democratic institutions show that not all can rely on or be patient for the effect of democracy to take hold.
*Cover photo by Ellie Cade Custom Homes
*Photo of Kirkwood Human Rights Commission by Tommi Poe