Is the Mississippi River the Middle of the Region or the Edge? Cultural Distinctions between Missouri and Illinois Andrew J. Theising
The St. Louis metropolitan area has long berated itself for being too passive, too reflective, too slow—and sometimes a region stuck in (or on) its past. To be certain, this criticism is rooted in truth. The St. Louis region changes at a glacier’s pace, but this does not have to be a detrimental factor—a point to be revisited at the conclusion of this essay. The criticism also speaks to one of the most significant political issues in the metropolitan region: the Mississippi River and the state line it represents. Its power is subtle, but it is probably the single-greatest challenge to St. Louis acting in a regional way. Though St. Louis possesses several dynamic regional organizations like FOCUS St. Louis, Bi-State Development Agency (Metro), the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, and East-West Gateway Council of Governments, which would all substantiate the argument that the river is the middle of the region, in the attitude of many the river is the edge, not the middle. Missouri and Illinois represent different power structures, different capacities, different expectations, and different demands. At a fundamental level, Missouri and Illinois are very different places. This difference is readily explained by the work of the late scholar Daniel Elazar. In his landmark work American Federalism: The View from the States (1966), Elazar defined a typology for studying the specific political cultures that dominated the states of the union. Though dated, Elazar’s work offers a clear understanding of why the bi-state region is what it is—and with a bit more analysis, points to a direction for change.
About State Political Culture
State political culture can be defined as the norms and behaviors of populations living in various jurisdictions, directly influencing the institutions of government, the rules by which those institutions operate, the selection of those serving in leadership roles, and the expectations and demands placed on those leaders and institutions. Elazar describes three specific dynamics: the set of perceptions of what politics is and what can be expected, the kinds of people who become active in various ways, and the actual way in which the “art of government” is practiced by all.2 Former United States Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase wrote that the term “state”—as used in the United States Constitution—referred not just to government, but rather to “the combined idea…of people, territory, and government.”3 The strength of Chase’s definition is that “states” are more than just jurisdiction, they are social, physical, and institutional—and so any discussion of state political culture should respect the multidimensional aspects of states themselves.
State political culture is but one of three larger forces in the United States observed by Elazar, and all of these come together to define the American political experience. In addition to political culture are the factors of “sectionalism,” or the ties that bond groups of states together (“the South,” “New England,” “the Midwest”) and “frontier,” or the constant desire to exercise control over the environment and to realign accordingly.4 This is to remind us that political culture does not operate in a vacuum and there are other significant relationships to space and environment that are worth examining. However, in the case of the St. Louis region, the impact of state political culture is important in and of itself.
The mobility of population spreads political culture, both across states and within states. As people pursue the frontier dynamic, they bring with them attitudes, ideas, and expectations— often finding like groups with which to settle and develop. Many scholars argue that Elazar’s work is outdated in the 21st century, and an argument can be made for that. Certainly, populations have shifted considerably in the four decades since Elazar did his work. The demographic composition of the country has changed, as have immigration/migration patterns, fertility rates, economic conditions, and environmental conditions. Despite the incredible level of change that has occurred, the institutions that serve those populations have not. It is the premise of this essay that those institutions 1.) perpetuate a considerable amount political culture, 2.) determine the dynamics of political involvement by citizens and other institutions, and 3.) that, though the work of those institutions changes over time, the institutions themselves change only slowly and incrementally (and sometimes reluctantly).
Missouri and Illinois have distinct political cultures because the populations that settled the states migrated from different places. While both are blends of traditionalistic and individualistic culture, each emphasizes a different side that makes each state distinct. Illinois has, primarily, an individualistic political culture developed from population migration that drifted from the east—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, to name a few. It has a similar, though not identical, culture with these states. Missouri, on the other hand, has a belt of traditionalistic political culture because it was influenced by southern populations moving northward, especially along a belt from Virginia, to Kentucky and Tennessee, through Southern Illinois, and into Missouri. Missouri, therefore, tends to have a political culture that is more compatible with southern states (and the southern portion of Illinois—which is a bit different from the northern portion of the state).
Missouri's Traditionalistic Political Culture
There are three main manifestations of traditionalistic political culture that are especially applicable to the Missouri case: the presence and influence of social hierarchy, comfort with family rule, and politics built around interpersonal relationships that value the status quo. Traditionalistic political culture is “rooted in an ambivalent attitude toward the marketplace coupled with a paternalistic and elitist conception of the commonwealth.” It is an old, pre-commercial attitude “that accepts a substantially hierarchical society as part of the ordered nature of things, authorizing and expecting those at the top of the social structure to take a special and dominant role in government.”
Elazar notes that a traditionalistic political culture “accepts government as an actor with a positive role in the community, but it tries to limit that role to securing the continued maintenance of the existing social order.” The culture of power “functions to confine real political power to a relatively small and self-perpetuating group drawn from an established elite who often inherit their ‘right’ to govern through family ties or social position.”
Political competition in traditionalistic political culture is “usually conduction through factional alignments, an extension of the personal politics characteristic of the system; hence political systems within the culture tend to have loose one-party systems….” Good government maintains traditional patterns, and if necessary “their adjustment to changing conditions with the least possible upset. Bureaucracy in a traditionalistic political culture often interferes with the fine web of informal interpersonal relationships that lie at the root of the political system and have been developed by following traditional patters over the years.”
The Case for Social Hierarchy
The elite of the St. Louis region have come together in a very powerful forum called Civic Progress. Its members over the last fifty years have included the wealthiest and most powerful members of St. Louis society. In more recent years, the organization’s table has diversified in many ways but it remains a circle of private-sector power. There is scant a great event or piece of infrastructure in St. Louis over the last fifty years that did not have the fingerprints of Civic Progress on it, and St. Louis’ prominent families have lent their talent and treasure to noteworthy civic projects regularly: Baer, Busch, Danforth, and Queeny for example beginning several decades ago, and names like Roberts, Schlafly, and Taylor for example from more recent decades. The leadership represented by these people, both public and private, both personal and institutional, have generated significant positive results for St. Louis and the region is fortunate to have them. It is not that they exist that speaks to Missouri’s traditionalistic culture—scholarship is plentiful identifying the roles of elites in implementing the community’s agenda—but it is the reliance of St. Louis on these talented people to often set the agenda that makes the case for traditionalistic political culture.
On a negative side, the traditionalistic political culture has long had a close relationship with racism. St. Louis is repeatedly listed among the most racially-polarized cities in the country. While it is true that a considerable amount of this can be laid at the feet of flawed national policies such as home lending practices, urban renewal, and public housing, the region must bear a measure of this weight itself. According to Where We Stand, East-West Gateway Council of Governments shows that St. Louis ranks in the top ten most-disparate regions among 35 peer regions in multiple indicators. In the areas of infant mortality and unemployment, St. Louis ranked 4th highest; in college education and poverty, St. Louis ranked 9th highest.8 The statistics do not show an improvement since 2002. It is the steadiness of these statistics that is emblematic of the traditionalistic political culture. The “status quo” often carries the day. The social hierarchy that has been set in St. Louis specifically, and Missouri generally, is difficult to shift and break through. Southern Illinois also shares a legacy of racism from its own traditionalistic elements, evident in its unfortunate distinction of seeing three Progressive-Era race riots—Springfield in 1909, East St. Louis in 1917, and Chicago in 1919, with East St. Louis having the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest in the country’s history.
The Case for Family Rule
Missouri and St. Louis clearly have a strong affinity for family rule. There are multiple examples of political activity running through families, both within a particular generation and across generations. These are not tied to a particular geographic part of the state, nor to a particular racial group, nor to a particular political party. Its universality provides evidence that it is part of the state’s political culture and it is prominent.
One of the most prominent political families in Missouri bears the name Carnahan. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat and native of the Rolla area, served as Missouri’s governor from 1993 to 2000. He ran for the US Senate in the year 2000, but died in a plane crash shortly before the November election—which he won posthumously. Lieutenant Governor Roger Wilson, assuming the office of governor after Carnahan’s death, appointed Jean Carnahan to serve her late husband’s term. The subsequent years have seen considerable success for the Carnahan family. Daughter Robin Carnahan was elected Missouri Secretary of State in 2004 and won re-election in 2008. Son Russ Carnahan won election to the United States House of Representatives representing the third congressional district, succeeding Richard Gephardt. Congressman Carnahan’s wife served as a municipal judge in St. Louis.
Another prominent political family name in Missouri is Blunt. Roy Blunt, a Republican and native of southern Missouri, served as Missouri’s Secretary of State from 1985 to 1993, and won election to the United States House of Representatives from the 7th congressional district of Missouri in 1996. His son, Matt, was also elected Missouri’s Secretary of State (at age 29), and then was elected Governor (at age 33). He served only one term. When Missouri’s senior Senator, Christopher Bond, announced his retirement in 2009, the first major candidates to replace him were from Missouri’s two most powerful political families—Roy Blunt and Robin Carnahan.
There are many other examples of family rule in the region. Longtime US Congressman from Missouri’s first district, William Clay, was succeeded in office by his son, William Lacy Clay. The Clays have long been a powerful force in St. Louis politics. Further south in Missouri, 8th district US Congressman Bill Emerson was replaced by his widow JoAnn Emerson in 1996. She has won re-election multiple times and has become a political force in her own right. St. Louis city politics are full of prominent family names. Mayor Francis Slay is the son of longtime democratic power broker. Former Mayor Freeman Bosley is too. Former Aldermanic president Tom Villa is the son of longtime political powerbroker Red Villa, and his own son Matt Villa currently serves on the Board of Aldermen. Within the traditionalistic culture, voters find comfort in the interpersonal relationships established by political families and reward these relationships with election.
The Case for Status-Quo Politics
The status quo nature of Missouri’s traditionalistic-influenced culture is probably best illustrated by the state’s participation in the tax revolt begun after California’s famous Proposition 13 initiative of June 6, 1978. By 1982, Missouri was among 20 states of all political cultures in following California’s lead by altering government’s ability to collect taxes. The Hancock Amendment to the Missouri constitution in 1980 allowed voters to trump planned tax increases by state government by requiring all increases in state and local taxes to be put before voters as a referenda.10 According to scholars, traditionalistic voters have been reluctant to approve new taxes and many institutions struggle financially because their revenues are constrained.11 In the generation that has passed since the tax revolt era, other states have relaxed the restrictions, including California’s 1990 repeal of Proposition 13, but Missouri did not follow in the change. In fact, in 1994 there was an initiative on the ballot to strengthen the Hancock Amendment, though it was not successful. Colorado (moralistic political culture) and Washington (moralistic/individualistic political culture) both modified state tax and expenditure limitation law in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Traditionalistic Missouri voters had seized power from the state legislature and have not seen fit to return any portion of this power to the body.
Missouri continues to lag in government spending, and the St. Louis metropolitan area illustrates this point. According to East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the St. Louis region ranks second-highest among 35 peer regions in units of government per person, yet ranks third-lowest in per-capita government expenditures.12 Traditionalistic states are reluctant to change. Re-election rates are high, governing documents are old, and old institutions with repetitive leadership continue to replicate old results. This is not to say that Missouri is dysfunctional—to the contrary, the state functions rather well given its constraints— but the political culture of the state makes real change exceptionally difficult.
Illinois' Individualistic Political Culture
The key manifestation of the individualistic political culture is the role of the exchange relationship found in the marketplace. Elazar states that “the individualistic political culture emphasizes the conception of the democratic order as a marketplace,” meaning that “…government is instituted for strictly utilitarian reasons.”13 Government in the individualistic political culture “emphasizes the centrality of private concerns” and “places a premium on limiting community intervention, whether governmental or nongovernmental, into private activities to the minimum necessary to keep the marketplace in proper working order.”14 This laissez-faire approach is nothing new to American politics—in fact, it has been a dominant force in domestic politics since the country’s inception. There is a twist to this, though, in individualistic states.
Certainly, most working in government in individualistic states view public service as an obligation to provide quality public service in exchange for salary, benefit, and status that is due them. Elazar recognizes this point explicitly. However, there are others in the individualistic culture who see the primary responsibility of working in government as serving oneself (and those who have supported her or him directly), providing these favors at public expense.15 Such behavior is often tolerated in the individualistic political culture because politics is viewed as a “system of mutual obligations rooted in personal relationships.”16 Elazar states that “politicians are interested in office as a means of controlling the distribution of the favors or rewards of government rather than as a means of exercising governmental power for programmatic ends.”17 One does not have to look for in Illinois politics to find examples of this.
The public’s view of this often falls short of outrage. “There is a strong tendency among the public to believe that politics is a dirty—if necessary—business, better left to those who are willing to soil themselves by engaging in it,” notes Elazar. “Since a fair amount of corruption is expected in the normal cause of things, there is relatively little popular excitement when any is found unless it is of an extraordinary character.”18 This explains why citizens will throw up their hands at some instances of corruption and walk away, rather than organize protest and force corrective action.
It is not just elected officials who are drawn into this attitude. Bureaucracy is too. “Bureaucratic organization is introduced within the framework of the favor system; large segments of the bureaucracy may be insulated from it through the merit system, but the entire organization is pulled into the political environment at crucial points through political appointment at the upper echelons and, very frequently, the bending of the merit system to meet political demands.”19 This could be seen as a rather scathing indictment of bureaucratic behavior in individualistic political culture, but certainly examples of bureaucratic compliance with corrupt leadership are readily found.
Setting the Stage with Government Power
Illinois has a lot of government. There are 868 units of government in the bi-state St. Louis MSA, serving a population of over 2.5 million.20 However, the five Illinois counties of the 2000 Census MSA account for about one-third of the region’s population, but account for approximately 50% of the units of government.21 Illinois, in softening its incorporation laws, has used the ability to create government to spread political control, expand opportunities for patronage employment, and tightly control service delivery dynamics—all consistent with Elazar’s individualistic political culture. These were long-standing tools of political machines and patronage politics. Some scholars argue that this exists today in the form of special tax districts and tax increment financing districts, being local governments that have both political and economic goals.22 The large amount of government in Illinois stems from a significant constitutional change coming out of the Civil War era. In 1870, the State of Illinois adopted a constitution that shifted municipal incorporation power from state-level authority to county-level authority.23 This new laissez-faire approach to local governance allowed for massive government expansion and political profiteering. A wave of municipal incorporations occurred over the next twenty-five years, and many well-known cities in Metro East developed or amended charters under the new rules: East St. Louis in 1877, Madison in 1888, Glen Carbon in 1893, Granite City in 1896, Fairmont City in 1913, Wood River in 1917, and what is now Sauget in 1926. Leaders emerged in the state who were entrepreneurs in both the economic and policy sense of the word. Leaders in Illinois during this time were typical urban power brokers. The eminent scholar Daniel Boorstin called these leaders civic “boosters,” and characterized them by their ability to merge public and private prosperity.24 Merging public and private prosperity was not just the fact of how these leaders ran government, it was a public expectation.
Merging Public and Private Prosperity
A significant number of cities in Metro East were established by businesses to advance business interests—and this behavior was perfectly legal. In fact, it was encouraged and resulted in substantial industrial presence in southern Illinois. Consider the roles of Standard Oil in creating Wood River (1906), Shell Oil in creating Roxana (1917), the National Stock Yards in creating National City (1907), and the Aluminum Ore Company in creating Alorton (1944).25 Probably the most blatant example of merging public and private prosperity was the creation of the city of Monsanto, Illinois, in 1926. The Monsanto Chemical Company purchased 1.65 square miles of land along the Mississippi River, just south of East St. Louis. The company was explicit about its intention: it bought “acreage in excess of [the firm’s] requirements with the express intention of creating a community of chemical-using industries.”26 A company brochure bragged about the local government it had created. “Monsanto, incorporated as such on August 14, 1926, is a typical industrial center, comprising not only factories but a subdivision of small homes for the employees…. It is governed by a President and six Trustees; men who are eager to make the district attractive to industries. Being self-governing, its tax rates are low and there are no burdensome ‘nuisance’ taxes.”
The “burdensome nuisance taxes” speaks directly to the City of St. Louis. In the days before national environmental standards and substantive local zoning ordinances, cities used the “nuisance” tax to use local police power to enter a property, abate whatever nuisance existed there, and send the landowner a bill for the enforcement. The 1914 St. Louis city charter allowed for nuisance abatement, and this was a significant threat to industry operating in the growing residential metropolis. A 2006 Wall Street Journal feature on the city (now called Sauget) titled “Yes, In My Back Yard,” noted that the city still pursues nuisance industries.
This commercial motivation for incorporating cities fits cleanly with the individualistic political culture. If government could be a tool for improving commerce and personal wealth— while enriching public coffers along the way—a business leader could be deemed foolish to not pursue it.
The Struggle with Corruption
Any power arrangement that could yield both private and public prosperity runs the risk of becoming corrupted to the point where private prosperity becomes the prevailing priority. This aspect of the individualistic political culture has made for sensational headlines over the years.
Stories of corruption have swirled around East St. Louis city hall from the city’s earliest days. In 1884, a judge ordered City Treasurer Thomas J. Canty to surrender all city funds in his possession. On the morning that the transfer was to have taken place, the new city hall vault had been seemingly been robbed by opening a hole in the brick wall that enclosed the safe. It appeared that tens of thousands of dollars had been stolen, when likely it had never arrived there in the first place. A congressional investigation revealed in 1918 that G. Locke Tarlton, as president of the East Side Levee District, engaged in extensive graft. When the Levee District decided to purchase a parcel of land, Tarlton sent a representative to the widow who owned the land and he purchased it for $5,000. Three weeks later, Tarlton sold the land to the Levee District for $20,000.30 During the Kefauver Committee on Organized Crime investigation in 1951, Police Commissioner John T. English was asked to explain his income tax statement: “Now, when we did have access to your income-tax returns, we noted that…in 1943 your income from the city of East St. Louis was $4,000; rents, $2,508; miscellaneous $209.55, a rather modest income; and then there is an additional item of income, political contributions, $24,000. Do you care to explain?” The stories continue to the present day.
Federal agents have descended on East St. Louis city hall repeatedly to investigate corruption charges. Most notable was the 2004 raid that led to the conviction of five city officials and workers, including the return to prison of former Regulatory Affairs Director Kelvin Ellis for obstruction of justice charges, and the sentencing of Democratic party boss and City Councilman Charles Powell for election fraud.32 Federal agents returned to city hall in 2009 to investigate liquor license fees and the management of taverns in the city—which were found to be a source of corruption in the 1918 congressional investigation as well.33 The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The impeachment of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2009 showed that the struggle with corruption reaches beyond the local level to the state and even national level. Blagojevich was impeached by the Illinois legislature on the grounds that he abused his power as an elected official. Federal investigators recorded Blagojevich discussing a payoff for the US Senate seat vacated by then-president-elect Barack Obama. He was removed from office and faces federal charges. He was not the first Illinois governor to face indictment and prosecution.34 Former Illinois Governor George Ryan was sent to federal prison in 2006 for racketeering and fraud charges stemming from his tenure as Secretary of State. Former Illinois Governor Dan Walker, governor from 1973-1977, was sentenced to federal prison for accepting fraudulent loans after he left office. Former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—a governor who rose to national prominence and a position on the US Court of Appeals—was sentenced to federal prison in 1973 for bribery, among other charges. Daniel Rostenkowski, as a powerful US Congressman from the Chicago area, pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996 and served time in federal prison until his pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Lest Missourians think that the Show-Me State is above corrupt behavior, recall that Elazar identified an individualistic element in Missouri—just not a dominant element. The weak mayor system in St. Louis was put in place by the 1914 city charter as a response to corruption. This change was made, in part, as a response to the infamous corruption of the administration of Mayor Henry Ziegenhein. Lincoln Steffens, a Progressive muckraking journalist, exposed the country to urban corruption in his book Shame of the Cities. St. Louis’s corruption was so vast and intriguing that it warranted two chapters, rather than the one chapter dedicated to larger cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York.35 The result of the Progressive-era charter change was to strip the mayor of financial power—and creating a divided power system where fiscal management is vested with a comptroller and budget decisions with a Board of Estimate and Apportionment on which the mayor has but one of the three votes.
It is not a surprise that some politicians are corrupt. A compilation of ethics studies done for The Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science indicated that about 10% of employees “take advantage of situations if the penalty is less than the benefit” and the likelihood of being caught is low.36 There is a segment of the human population that is willing to engage in illicit behavior, and these people show up in offices, schools, churches, bureaucracy, and elected office. While illegal or unethical behavior is not to be excused without due process, it should also not be surprising or unanticipated. Corrupt individuals do not make a corrupt system, but institutions can be permissive and leaders owe it to the public to make sure government institutions protect and serve the public interest.
Moving Forward: Difference at Strength
The 21st century is truly the information age. Information is power. Knowledge is power. Communication is essential. Political boundaries and geographic location seemingly mean less and less as technology advances. Missouri and Illinois show distinct political cultures—not unique cultures, since both elements are shared by both states, but distinct because each presents a different element as dominant. Though Elazar’s study is over forty years old, it is still relevant to understanding how states work.
All political cultures and all political institutions carry with them political “baggage.” This baggage does not have to be a detriment. The analysis that Elazar provides today’s decision-makers is quite valuable. It functionally lays out a policy map, showing where pitfalls may exist and how to navigate through cumbersome systems. It points in a direction and identifies the loci of power. Conversely, it could be used as another excuse for why a project should not be carried out, another reason why bi-state cooperation is impossible, or as evidence that one side or the other is not to be trusted. However, it would be to the region’s advantage to fully understand the rather unique situation facing St. Louis. There are not many urban regions of St. Louis’s size straddling these two particular political cultures. The region has shown a high degree of institutional stability, and decision-making here is a known commodity. Leaders have proven that bi-state cooperation is possible, and that the residents of the region will support key projects and initiatives.
There are successes. Every bridge over the Mississippi River represents meaningful cooperation in one way or another. Consider the reconstruction of the Eads Bridge and the McKinley Bridge—both cooperative efforts approached from innovative perspectives. Consider the interstate bridges—Chain of Rocks, Poplar Street, and Jefferson Barracks—the financial and maintenance agreements involved with them, and the negotiation for a new span in the coming decade. Consider the engineering marvel that is the Clark Bridge. Consider the old Chain of Rocks Bridge, too. Here, a piece of infrastructure designed for cars is now dedicated to people and the enjoyment of the historic river.
Consider Metrolink, which has served both sides of the river from day one. Consider the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, an entity that brings elected officials from both states and political cultures to one table. Consider the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, a commercial organization that realizes the regional economy affects Missouri and Illinois alike, and brings private-sector leaders together for the benefit of the regional economy. Consider FOCUS St. Louis, a source of regional citizenship, regional leadership development, and regional policy perspective.
The reality is that the St. Louis region comes together across the state line every single day. Cooperation is possible. It will not always be easy, it will not always be painless, but it can happen. In fact, the tools are in place to make it work and keep it working. The region should continue to use the many connections between the states, and build more. Knowledge and respect for the states’ distinct histories and cultures is important, and difference is not a detriment. Rather, diversity is the region’s strength. From this perspective, the Mississippi River is indeed the middle of the region, not the edge.