After a little bit of time away, the national spotlight is back on St. Louis.
Hordes of reporters and political types will venture here this weekend for the second presidential debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
This area has a lot in common with what’s forming the national political discourse. Our racial, social and economic divisions were broadcast to the world after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. And finding tangible solutions to these longstanding gaps has been a slow and frustrating process.
Yet even through struggle and adversity, this city has more to offer than spectacular ice cream or craft beer. Many here have come face-to-face with problems and opportunities that national candidates talk about in broad terms.
Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer set off a national conversation about how African-Americans interact with law enforcement. But it also showcased the historical inequities that black St. Louisans face in housing, education, health care and economic mobility.
This obviously isn’t a new or unexpected challenge. But the struggle to improve racial and economic conditions has played a major role in the current presidential campaign and in the last two debates. In some ways, the location of Sunday’s debate showcases the daunting challenge ahead for Clinton and Trump: Washington University itself is close to the most prosperous and poorest parts of the St. Louis region. That itself shows how excellence and wealth can be right next to disinvestment and disrepair.
This reality exists in many parts of the country. And despite promises from Clinton and Trump (and other presidential contenders throughout the years) to directly deal with obvious inequity, St. Louis shows that translating the rhetoric of prosperity into tangible progress is difficult and slow-moving.
After Brown’s death, politicians from both parties promised to make big changes to how law enforcement did their jobs – all in the name of bridging divides between African-Americans and police. While it’s not fair to say that Missouri did nothing, many proposals that passed in other states failed to gain traction in Missouri. And proposals in the highly touted Ferguson Commission report ran into substantial opposition.
From a more local perspective, St. Louis can show to candidates like Trump how simply promising “law and order” isn’t enough to effectively deal with crime. After all, how many times have St. Louis’ political and law enforcement leaders announced high-profile changes in strategy – only to see these declarations overshadowed by murder and gunfire?
To be sure, Clinton and Trump don’t need another reminder of how hard it is to effectuate legislative policy. They just have to look to Congress. But since both candidates promised to directly deal with this public policy issue (from much different perspectives), it might be instructive to learn from St. Louis and Missouri’s experiences.
The country’s trade and economic policies have impacted St. Louis residents for some time.
Whether it’s the shutdown of automotive plants, the collapse of the housing market or foreign companies buying renowned local corporations, St. Louisans have come face-to-face with some of the country’s biggest economic challenges and calamities. And these issues are difficult ones for local policymakers to grapple with.
Since Sunday’s town hall-style debate will feature questions from audience members, the candidates may well be questioned by St. Louisans who've been hurt by a languishing economy. Can Trump or Clinton provide satisfactory responses that go beyond talking points – especially in a limited amount of time?
The facts highlighted above clearly show that St. Louis is dealing with major problems that will take more than rhetoric to fix. But visitors this weekend could also discover how people are latching onto some even greater opportunities.
Whether it’s expanding technological education with programs like LaunchCode or investing in bioscience and in the Cortex district, there are signs of cutting-edge progress around St. Louis. Struggling public school districts are showing promise, and people will find highly successful examples of entrepreneurship. There’s also widespread discussion about the region’s long-term future, including making sizable investments in transportation infrastructure and changing how governmental systems work.
Few would argue that these glimmers of progress whitewash or compensate for the daunting challenges. If anything, they highlight the cognitive dissidence that exists all around the country between progress and decline.
Nor is there a reasonable expectation that a 90 minute debate can provide all the answers to what ails St. Louis or the country – especially when a motivating factor for these rhetorical clashes is to come off looking better on television.
Yet in a presidential election cycle that has at times seemed detached from reality, St. Louis displays in vivid detail what’s ahead for the person who emerges victorious in November – and how it may take a lot more than their finite time in office to see the change they need.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.