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Commentary: Missouri's Confused Political Culture


I am about to conclude that the reason we are called the Show Me State is because we Missourians are confused about our identity and need someone to show us who we are.  I’ve lived in Missouri most of my life and am as curious as anyone.

Are we northerners?  The ancestors of residents north of U.S. 24 – St. Joe, Maryville, Trenton, Kirksville – immigrated from states in the American northeast and to this day they are more like Iowans.  Are we southerners?  The ancestors of residents of Little Dixie and all along the Missouri River west of Hermann, including Columbia, came from Virginia and Kentucky.  And they brought their slaves with them.  And to this day the Bootheel is more like Arkansas and Tennessee than it is like St. Joe.

Are we easterners?  St. Louis is said to be the “last eastern city,” but that was probably before it began its long and sad decline a half century ago.  Are we westerners?  Kansas City is said to be the “first western city,” and it certainly has more of a western vibe than any other large place in the state.  There is even an east-west divide on how the name of the state is pronounced.  Obviously I’m from the eastern part.  Although everyone uses the western Missouri pronunciation when they sing the MU fight song.  At least we’re not singing “Chehee-cheha Chehahaha” like they do at the University of Illinois.  Or singing “Rock Chalk Jay Hawk.”  Did you know that “rock chalk” is a transposition of “chalk rock,” which is the limestone common to that part of Kansas?  I knew Kansans had lots of problems.  I didn’t realize word inversion syndrome was one of them. 

Speaking of pronunciations, Missouri is famous for alternative ways of saying place names.  Versailles is only the best known.  There’s also Nevada, Advance and New Madrid.  The list goes on.  My favorite is in Franklin County.  The village of Japan was founded in 1860 and after Pearl Harbor the residents got a lot of pressure to change the name.  Being stiff-necked country people they changed the name all right: It became Japan (pronounced JAY-pun).

The first great political divide in Missouri was caused by the Civil War.  It is said that even today in Boone County you can tell which political party settler families belong to by knowing which color uniform their ancestor boys wore at the Battle of Centralia in 1863.  For many decades there were lots of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans running around central Missouri.  That’s mostly changed as the parties have sorted themselves out both ideologically and geographically.  Urban Missouri (except Springfield) is Democratic; rural Missouri is Republican.

And pretty evenly divided.  Even though Missouri is trending Republican, Democrats can still win statewide elections, which is why Senator McCaskill has hope.  The state legislature is overwhelming Republican because Democrats are packed into a few urban districts and Republicans are scattered among many more rural ones.

Missouri may have multiple political personalities, but back in the day it was a microcosm of the country.  From 1904 through 2004, with only one exception, Missouri was the bellwether state for president, voting for the winner every time.  And politics in Missouri remains interesting to say the least.  So perhaps its’s okay for our cultural and political identities to be a little mixed up.  Maybe we’re like the person in the short poem:

Roses are red, violets are blue                                                                                                     

I’m schizophrenic and so am I.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.