Jaco: The arithmetic of political change

Missouri’s legislature is run by conservative extremists and rural racists because St. Louis has become too small to stop them. Politics is about ideas and governing philosophies. But politics is mostly about arithmetic. Whoever has the most people wins.

St. Louis’s shrinking population and diminished influence is why Missouri lawmakers passed one of the most extreme “gun rights” laws in the nation in 2017, a law that forces St. Louis cops to kick loose suspects with guns, no matter how many or what kind, unless the suspects are felons. 

It’s why the Missouri legislature passed laws all but outlawing abortion in the state. It’s why they’re set to approve a proposal to let anyone carry concealed weapons on any public university or college campus. It’s why they’re trying to undo progressive voter-passed initiatives ranging from re-districting to right-to-work. And it’s why smug Republicans from counties whose main economic drivers are oxy pill mills and public assistance checks are setting social and economic policies based on the Old Testament and right-wing animosity toward cities and all they represent.

Again, it’s arithmetic. Just look across the Mississippi River as to what that means. A casual glance at any map from the 2016 or 2018 elections tells the story. Illinois south of Chicago, county by county, is just as red as rural Missouri. But real estate doesn’t vote. People do.

Chicago, surrounding Cook County, and the neighboring Democratic counties of DuPage and Lake contain 53 percent of Illinois’ population. And when the people in three urban counties outnumber the rest of the state, arithmetic takes over. Rural pro-Trump Republicans can make all the noise they want, but it’s meaningless.

The script is flipped in Missouri. St. Louis City and County combined make up only 20 percent of Missouri’s population. The city only makes up five percent. Five percent. Five percent is why rural lawmakers can cut off practically all state aid for mass transit. Five percent is why they can pass a more-than-nominally-racist voter ID law aimed at disenfranchising minorities, the young, and the elderly. Five percent is why they can slash programs benefiting the poor, because to them and their constituents, the only poor are the urban poor, and the only urban poor are black.

But the arithmetic is even worse than the five percent population share indicates. Voter turnout whittles the figure down even more, proof of Trump election guru and white nationalist Steve Bannon’s dictum that Republicans don’t have to worry about any Democratic appeal to the poor and working poor because they checked out of the political system years ago, either swamped by the grinding job of keeping body and soul together, or disillusioned by a political system that inevitably squeezes the poor even harder. 

Check out the figures from the 2016 presidential election, when it was apparent that the Republican nominee was a depraved racist sociopath. Of St. Louis City’s 241,700 eligible voters, 53 percent—127,403—turned out to vote. Hillary Clinton ended up with five times as many votes as Trump inside the city limits—101,487.

But the real winner in St. Louis was “none of the above”.  114,297 eligible voters in the city didn’t bother to vote, whether from apathy or voter suppression. And the arithmetic from those numbers show why Missouri has a government that skews hard-right in favor of rural conservatives. Successful cities and their progressive inner suburbs change state dynamics. The roll of that success from Washington DC spread to northern Virginia, and pushed Virginia politics to the left. 

Atlanta is doing the same to Georgia politics. A booming Denver has shifted Colorado. Charlotte and Raleigh have had the same effect on North Carolina. But without dynamic, growing cities, states remain under the control of rural conservatives. Add voter suppression, and you have Missouri.

Revitalizing St. Louis means more than rescuing its residents from crime, racist policies, and incompetent governance. It would also mean changing the deep-red arithmetic of this state.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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