National publication delves into the political landscape in Tennessee

Our friends at the Almanac of American Politics are bringing out their latest reference book, a 2,200-page compendium that includes chapters about Gov. Bill Lee and the political landscape in Tennessee.

Senior author Louis Jacobson wrote the volume’s 100 state and gubernatorial profiles, and we have been given the green light to publish the Volunteer State material on the TNJ: On the Hill blog. We also have been given the discount code of TNJournal15 for anyone interested in getting 15% off the print version here.

Here is the Almanac’s chapter on Tennessee (the profile of the governor will be posted next week):

Tennessee, once a political battleground, is no longer. It has become one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation, with just a few pockets of blue in its biggest cities. And while Tennessee has long been home to an influential strain of moderate Republicanism, the tradition’s most recent exemplars—Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam—are now out of politics, succeeded by more solidly conservative Republicans.

Tennessee is almost 500 miles across, closer in the east to Delaware than to Memphis, and closer in the west to Dallas than to Johnson City. It has had a fighting temperament since the days before the Revolutionary War, when the first settlers crossed the Appalachian ridges and headed for the rolling country in the watersheds of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Tennessee became a state in 1796, the third state after the original 13. Its first congressman was a 29-year-old lawyer who was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants: Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, who killed two men in duels, was a general who led Tennessee volunteers—it’s still called the Volunteer State—to battle against the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and against the British at New Orleans in 1815. He was the first president from an interior state, elected in 1828 and 1832, and was a founder of the Democratic Party, now the oldest political party in the world. Jackson was a strong advocate of the union, but 16 years to the day after his death, Tennessee voted to join the Confederacy. Today, Jackson’s own party largely disowns him for his slaveholding past and his role in the forced removal of Native Americans during the Trail of Tears; as president, however, Donald Trump lionized him. (Today, Jackson’s home and plantation east of Nashville, the Hermitage, has an extensive exhibit documenting its enslaved people.)

Tennessee is a state with a certain civility: Both Confederate and Union generals paid respectful calls on Sarah Polk, the widow of President James K. Polk who stayed carefully neutral, in her Nashville mansion. Yet it was better known as a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to “I’ll Take My Stand,” a manifesto calling for retaining the South’s rural economy and heritage. (Today, the state ranks third in tobacco production and 10th in cotton.) Tennessee is also known for the momentous 1925 trial in Dayton in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes defied a state ban on teaching evolution in public schools.

In 1959 and 1960, Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson trained a generation of student civil rights activists, notably John Lewis, a student at Nashville’s Fisk University; they organized sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters at Kress, Woolworth and McClellan stores. The protests sparked confrontations, arrests and ultimately a bombing that destroyed the home of the defense attorney for the protestors. That prompted Nashville Mayor Ben West to make a public appeal calling for an end to discrimination in the city. Within a few weeks, stores began to integrate their lunch counters and Nashville later became the first major city in the South to desegregate public facilities. The campaign became a template for student-run civil rights efforts throughout the South that Lewis, who became a Georgia congressman until his death in 2020, would heroically lead.

Against this backdrop were Tennessee business leaders who created the first supermarket, Piggly Wiggly, as well as such brands as Holiday Inn, FedEx, and Moon Pies. The New Deal-era creation of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority also provided the state with bountiful energy, from a mix of coal, nuclear and hydropower plants.

Music is another strong Tennessee tradition. East Tennessee is one of the original homes of bluegrass music and mountain fiddling. Gospel music has long been centered in Nashville, which is also home to the Southern Baptist Convention and a center for religious publishing; justifiably, Nashville is known as the “buckle of the Bible Belt.” Country music got its commercial start in Nashville, with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium in 1925, and it remains the capital of country music today. The Mississippi lowlands around Memphis, which is economically and culturally the metropolis of the Mississippi Delta, gave birth to the blues in the years from 1890 to 1920, and the blues were in turn the inspiration for Elvis Presley, whose first recordings were made at the legendary Sun Studio, as well as for countless other rock ‘n’ roll musicians beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis remains one of the country’s major tourist destinations; in Nashville, the Country Music Hall of Fame was recently joined by the National Museum of African American Music, collectively sketching out music history from Appalachia to contemporary hip-hop.

While Tennessee’s economy trailed the nation’s through much of the 20th century, its open climate for entrepreneurism enabled it to grow mightily in the 1980s and 1990s. The absence of strong unions made Tennessee attractive to business; in 2022, it was chosen by Area Development magazine as the second-best state for doing business, trailing only neighboring Georgia. The relative lack of bitter racial discord was a factor as well, with the obvious exception of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968.

Alexander, governor through most of the 1980s, was a deft salesman in his efforts to bring foreign auto plants to Middle Tennessee; Nissan opened a plant in Smyrna, south of Nashville. The company has since built another and relocated its U.S. headquarters to Tennessee; it began building electric vehicles in 2013. Volkswagen built a $1 billion “green” plant for the Passat in Chattanooga that has been upgraded to build the Atlas, a midsize crossover SUV, and electric vehicles. Among domestic producers, General Motors built the short-lived Saturn, a cult favorite, at Spring Hill; the plant is now producing the Cadillac XT5 and XT6 and the GMC Acadia. In 2021, Ford announced the biggest project of all: a $5.6 billion, 5,700- employee facility 50 miles northeast of Memphis in Haywood County; the company plans to build electric vehicles there starting in 2025.

Meanwhile, Nashville has become a tech center ever since Dell Computer built its second major U.S. facility there in 1999; by 2022, downtown had become a forest of construction cranes. Amazon has a major operations center there, Oracle has expanded its footprint, and Facebook has established a data center. Yoshi, an app that delivers gas, washing and other services to your car, moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Nashville in 2021.

Nashville is also a health care hub, led by HCA and Vanderbilt University. The region’s hightech focus is driven by some 125,000 university students at Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State, and Belmont universities. However, another recent relocation to Nashville—the Daily Wire, the aggressively conservative media company founded by Ben Shapiro—crystallizes a longstanding but now heightened ideological tension in Nashville. Politically, the city has become ever bluer, due significantly to white liberals; in addition, the city’s tourist base has a libertine undercurrent (the Lower Broadway district is now clogged day and night with school buses that have been converted into boozy party vehicles for bachelorette parties).

Yet on balance, the state’s electorate tilts heavily Republican. The state’s Republican Party has increasingly sought to impose conservative policies statewide, no matter the preferences of Nashvillians. The situation came to a head during the post-2020 Census redistricting, when the GOP drew a map that eliminated Nashville’s longstanding Democratic congressional seat, splitting the city into three districts that Republicans could easily win. City leaders fired back by refusing to support efforts to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to Nashville, and in March 2023, Republican Gov. Bill Lee continued the tit-for-tat by signing a bill that slashed Nashville’s 40-member metro council in half (which was later held up by the courts). Nashville argues that the GOP’s desire to impose its will on the region risks injuring the state’s dominant economic engine by making it unattractive to a highly educated workforce.

“At some point, you can lash out and hit yourself in the face,” Erik Schelzig, editor of the Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter, told U.S. News & World Report. The divide between urban and rural Tennessee widened in April 2023 after a deadly mass shooting at a school in Nashville. House Republicans voted to expel two legislators—Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis—for breaking decorum on the floor to urge stricter gun laws. Adding a racial element, Jones and Pearson are Black, while a white Democrat initially targeted for expulsion, Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, narrowly survived her expulsion vote. “Tennessee represents the grim culmination of the forces corroding state politics: the nationalization of elections and governance, the tribalism between the two parties, the collapse of local media and internet-accelerated siloing of news and the incentive structure wrought by extreme gerrymandering,” wrote Jonathan Martin in Politico after the expulsions.

Tennessee’s population has grown 11.1 percent since 2010, with especially rapid expansion around Nashville. Davidson County (Nashville) grew by 12.3 percent over the same period, while the suburbs grew even more rapidly—almost 40 percent in Williamson County, 34 percent in Rutherford County, 33 percent in Wilson County, and 25 percent in Sumner County. Meanwhile, the populations of Knox County (Knoxville) and Hamilton County (Chattanooga) grew 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively, and Blount County, south of Knoxville, grew 12 percent. Among the state’s largest counties, only Shelby County (Memphis) lagged, with a slight contraction; the poverty rate in the city of Memphis is almost 23 percent, higher than any of Tennessee’s other three big cities, and for those under 18, the poverty rate is almost one-third. The city was rocked in 2023 when five Black officers beat Tyre Nichols, a 29-yearold Black resident, to death; the city was praised for its quick efforts to charge the officers.

Tennessee ranks among the bottom 10 states in median income and in health status as
measured by America’s Health Rankings. Its rates of smoking, obesity, infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and stroke are each higher than the national average, while a 2023 report by the Tennessee Commission on Children & Youth found that Tennessee had greater foster care instability than any other state. Tennessee ranks 12th from the bottom in the attainment of bachelor’s degrees, though the state has been working to improve that: In 2014, Tennessee enacted free community college or technical school to all high school graduates. In 2021, Tennessee saw its high school attainment exceed the national average for the first time. The liberal-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy rated Tennessee’s tax system the nation’s sixth most regressive, thanks in large part to its heavy reliance on the sales tax, which does not exempt food and clothing. Tennesseans seem to prefer it, though; in 2014, voters by an almost 2-1 margin ratified a constitutional amendment banning the adoption of any state or local personal income or payroll tax.

For more than a century, Tennessee’s political divisions were rooted in Civil War loyalties. In two referenda on secession (one that failed in February 1861 and one that embraced it in June after the attack on Fort Sumter) most East Tennessee counties voted heavily for the Union and have remained heavily Republican ever since. Pro-secession counties in Middle and West Tennessee long voted heavily Democratic. Reform-minded liberal Democrats Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr. became national figures, with reliable enough backing from Tennessee’s yellow-dog Democratic majority to vote for civil rights bills. Gore was defeated in 1970. He died in 1998, but lived to see his son twice elected vice president.

As the Democrats’ cultural liberalism strained the ancestral loyalties of rural voters in West and Middle Tennessee, and as the surging growth around Nashville created a new voting bloc that was conservative both economically and culturally, Republicans gained the upper hand. Gore won his Senate seat in 1990 with two-thirds of the vote, but just 10 years later, he couldn’t win his home state in the presidential election. By 2012, with President Barack Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, Republicans won supermajorities in both legislative chambers. In the space of a decade, Democrats went from controlling all three branches of state government to barely being relevant in the capital. The only significant base of power for Democrats today is in mayoral offices, which they now hold in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville; the mayor of Chattanooga is a Republican-turned-independent.

The 2018 elections represented a death blow to a long tradition of pragmatic, technocratic Republicanism. On the strength of Republican support in rural and exurban areas, the GOP candidates for senator and governor—Rep. Marsha Blackburn and businessman Bill Lee— won their races for senator and governor by 11 and 21 points, respectively. They and the rest of the state’s political elite articulated a more confrontational message than was typical of politicians in the East Tennessee mold, such as former Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker, former Sens. Alexander and Corker, and Haslam. In 2020, Trump won the state by 23 points and lost only three counties: urban Shelby and Davidson, and small, majority Black Haywood, where Ford’s new plant will rise. In the counties surrounding Nashville— Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Sumner, Robertson and Cheatham—Biden’s vote share was between 30 and 40 points lower than it was in Davidson County.

In 2022, when the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, the state’s abortion trigger ban went into effect, without exceptions for rape and incest. The same year, McMinn County, less than an hour east of where the Scopes trial was held, attracted national criticism for removing “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum. In the 2022 elections, the GOP’s redistricting gambit worked, producing an 8-1 edge in Congressional seats, with only one contest closer than 22  points. This left Democrats with 11 percent of House seats in a state where Biden won more than 37 percent of the vote. Voters also affirmed the state’s right-to-work law by a 70%-30% margin.

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