Few cities symbolize middle America more than St. Louis. Though it is known as the Gateway to the West, it could just as easily be considered the place where the midwest and south meet. It has been the center of controversy for as long as it has existed, as has its home state of Missouri.
St. Louis was founded as a shipping waypoint between New Orleans and the Great Lakes region, with cargo eventually bound for the east coast passing through here. Included with that cargo were thousands of slaves, coming from New Orleans to the farms and plantations in the Missouri Territory and, later, state.
Despite its semi-northern location, Missouri was a slave state thanks to the deal made that bore its name: The Missouri Compromise. The basics of the deal were that no any state north of the 36°30’ parallel — a line that happened to coincide with the southern border of Missouri. However, the admission of Maine to the union as a free state meant that the slave-owning southern states demanded a balancing admission of another slave state, thus Missouri was excluded from the agreement. This compromise would also later result in the reduction of Texas’ size and the creation of the Oklahoma panhandle, which we have previously discussed.
Later, Missouri would be one of the biggest flashpoints which led to the Civil War, as the Kansas Territory battled with the idea of allowing or banning slavery as it moved toward statehood. Pro-slavery and abolitionist forces clashed in the territory, with Missouri heavily backing the slaveholders in what would come to be known as Bleeding Kansas.
Despite Missouri’s status as a slave state, they chose not to secede during the Civil War. However, several bloody battles and confrontations occurred within the state, and thousands of its citizens fought in the war — mostly on the side of the Confederacy. Race relations in the state were tense following the war as well, and segregation was a fact of life throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
In St. Louis, the racial strife continues to this day. Few among us don’t know about the Ferguson protests and riots following the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson and the fallout from it. Other controversial killings of black citizens, including children, by white cops across the nation, ranging from questionable to outright murder, and the refusal of the courts to punish the officers involved have led to heightened tensions everywhere — and the St. Louis area is the epicenter.
Perhaps it is no surprise that St. Louis contains two of the four counties in the state that went blue in the 2016 election, the others centered on population centers in Kansas City and Columbia. The rest of the state is highly rural, highly white, and highly conservative.
St. Louis is also a primer example of a city in decline. At its peak after World War II, the city had a population of more than 850,000. Subsequent decades have seen that number shrink by nearly two-thirds, to just over 310,000 today. Abandoned buildings now dot the landscape and it isn’t unusual to see wild animals in once thriving urban areas. But as wealthier families have left the city for the suburbs and beyond, lower-income citizens have been unable, or unwilling, to leave as easily.
For the most part, this has led to a major demographic shift. Nearly half of the population is African-American, and people of color as a whole make up a solid majority. Blue collar and working class jobs are still the order of the day for people of all backgrounds — thanks to St. Louis’ location on the Mississippi River, its role as a major shipping hub means there are still several companies either based there or with major hubs nearby.
Thanks to the shrinking population and plethora of companies in the region, the unemployment rate in St. Louis is at a comfortable 4.3 percent — right at about the national average. But most of those jobs are relatively low-paying, and the median income is well below the national average, and the poverty level is much higher.
The state as a whole has similar issues with low paying jobs and few chances for higher paying jobs. Missouri’s population as a whole, regardless of party affiliation or ethnicity, is heavily reliant on government entitlement programs. Despite this, the state easily went red in 2016, even as the GOP promised cuts to said programs — and then-candidate Donald Trump promised to repeal Obamacare.
Buyer’s remorse has set in for many Missourians, as they begin to fear losing health care coverage. This has yet to show up as a shift in loyalty — President Trump’s approval rating in Missouri is as high as any other conservative state, and there seems to be little danger of returning to swing state status in the near future as Republican strength in presidential elections has gotten stronger every four years since the last time they went blue in 1996.
St Louis’ shrinking population will likely serve to solidify democratic strength in the city at the cost of influence in the state as a whole. Realistically speaking, St. Louis runs the risk of being irrelevant as a factor in both statewide elections and national ones — the only major population center with a future is on the western border in Kansas City, where a steady population increase and brighter economic prospects promise to make it the last blue holdout in this increasingly red state.
But St. Louis’ status as an important focal point in the culture wars will almost certainly continue, for better or worse, as racial issues nationwide escalate. As white nationalists continue to be emboldened by President Trump and terrorist attacks by the same occur with frightening regularity — to say nothing of the repeated controversies over police killings — St. Louis role may become even more important than ever.