The city has expanded rapidly — but that growth has done a number on its politics.
Aug. 24, 2021, 6:30 p.m. ET
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When I think about growing up in Nashville in the 1980s, three memories jump out. The first is that my father, who grew up there in the 1950s, liked to say how little had changed — the streets, the people, the way everything shut down at 6 p.m. The second is that my mother, who came from Louisville, felt constantly demeaned as an outsider, Kentucky being too far north for many people’s comfort. And the third is McPizza — Nashville was considered a synecdoche of the American average, and therefore an early test market. If a McDonald’s pizza could sell there, it would sell anywhere. (Spoiler: It didn’t.)
Those memories could describe Nashville’s politics, too: unchanging, insular, but in a way typical of countless midsize, middle-American cities. At its top sat what locals called good ol’ boys and what the historian Patrick Wyman calls the “American gentry” — millionaires but not billionaires, all of them white men, conservative but not particularly ideological, with fortunes built more on static sectors like agriculture and services than on tech or finance. Most of the elite were happy to keep the city just as it was. They looked at Atlanta’s rapid postwar expansion in horror, and they militated against anything — mass transit, downtown development — that might turn us into another Southern megalopolis.
Then, around the time I left in 1995, things started to change. A series of liberal, pro-growth mayors, starting with Phil Bredesen, began to draw in global business. Dell built a plant there, then Nissan brought its North American headquarters to a suburb. They built out amenities: sports arenas, a world-class symphony hall. And they added new infrastructure, such as commuter rail and better buses.
The results are obvious to anyone who has hopped a flight for a weekend of Music City, U.S.A., which within the last decade has claimed the crown of America’s “it” city. A downtown with seemingly more construction cranes than mid-’90s Berlin. A metropolitan area that has doubled in size, to about two million people. A tourist mecca, drawing 15.2 million visitors in 2018 — versus just two million in 1998. The No. 1 bachelorette party destination in the country.
It’s not just about tourism. Vanderbilt, always a good regional school, is now one of the wealthiest, most exclusive universities in the country. AllianceBernstein moved its headquarters to Nashville in 2018; both Amazon and Oracle are now building multi-billion-dollar campuses in and around downtown.
You won’t necessarily notice it from your pedal tavern or Salemtown Airbnb, but all of this change has done a number on the city’s politics, in a way that is instructive for how once-insular cities are changing in the face of huge inflows of population from the coasts. The challenge is not so much managing growth — it’s managing the political change that growth brings.
Instead of one power center, the gentry, there are now three. The first newcomer is a liberal elite that, like its parallel at the national level, manages to be both left-leaning and pro-business. It embraces things like L.G.B.T.Q. awareness and smart-growth policies. It welcomes Amazon, but it also wants to see the tax revenues it will bring used for things like mass transit, affordable housing and education. It wants to be a top-tier city like Atlanta, but in the right way.
In sharp contrast is a coalition of local business people, Trumpist ideologues and religious conservatives, united by an opposition to the left and the sort of activist government it espouses. These folks have been around for decades: Phil Valentine, the Nashville radio host who died last week of Covid, made his name in the 1990s opposing immigration and tax increases. But they have been emboldened by the influx of tourist dollars over the past 20 years, which has lined the pockets of developers and entertainment entrepreneurs who see any effort at regulation as a threat to their livelihood.
And although the members of the gentry don’t have quite the sway they once did, they still have some power. Mayor John Cooper, a developer who defeated a progressive in 2019, came into office promising little more than a return to the status quo ante. His brother, Jim Cooper, is the city’s representative in the U.S. House.
For over 20 years, Nashville was led by a loose alliance of pro-business liberals and the gentry, which kept the anti-tax conservative right at bay. The gentry weren’t necessarily pro-growth, but as long as it was well-managed and to their benefit, they went along. That all fell apart in 2018, when Mayor Megan Barry, a liberal, resigned amid a sex scandal. She had been the driving force behind a billion-dollar plan to upgrade the city’s transit infrastructure, which had the gentry’s approval but faced fierce opposition from the ideological right (backed by money from the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity). Her fall not only doomed the plan, but also sundered public faith in the liberal-gentry alliance.
Absent that leadership, Nashville, which just a few years ago felt like a promised land for folks fleeing big-city problems, faces several challenges of its own. First is affordability. Housing prices are shooting up, squeezing out the working class. Unregulated, developers are replacing entire neighborhoods with McMansions and short-term rentals. As people are pushed to the edges and beyond, commuting is becoming unbearable.
Second is the culture clash between progressives and Trumpists. School board meetings over mask mandates have turned into fist fights, instigated in part by right-wing provocateurs. Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, which makes it home to battles over red-state concerns like transgender rights and Confederate monuments. These conflicts may be easy to dismiss as sideshows, but left unresolved they can poison the sort of consensus-building that long-term planning requires.
Third is the city’s budget, and the leadership’s failure to take advantage of its good fortune. In a state with no income tax, local property taxes are vital sources of government revenue. Yet Nashville has repeatedly rejected efforts to keep them in line with rising valuations. That has meant cuts to education, public works and infrastructure, and foreclosed the possibility of big-idea plans that may carry the city forward (though the City Council did vote recently to increase teacher pay).
Taken together, these problems represent a fundamental challenge to the gentry’s leadership, even as they make it harder to see either of the other factions taking hold. Liberals are ascendant, with President Biden capturing the highest percentage of the city’s votes since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. But the left is unlikely to take a commanding role over a city that covers 526 square miles, much of it exurban or rural, a metropolitan structure that was, ironically, one of the great achievements of the city’s last liberal-gentry alliance, in the 1960s. And there is an ascendant populist left, including a serious primary opponent for Jim Cooper next year, that is challenging the historical pro-business orientation among liberals.
But there are enough people on the left, however fractious, to offset the populist right, which, despite the arrival of national mascots like Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren — all of whom relocated to Nashville in recent years — represents a rowdy, disjointed minority. They may have allies among some of the ideologically oriented business elite, but the gentry won’t touch them, and their boisterous divisiveness makes them a hard sell among Nashville’s moderate middle.
The result is chaos. A city that has so much going for it — tourism, tech and finance relocation, millions of young, educated migrants — is fatally hamstrung by a political leadership that has lost control but can’t yet cede power to a successor. In its absence, growth will continue; Nashville is still a fun, relatively affordable place to live. But that growth will be unguided and metastatic. In other words, it will be Atlanta — the very thing that the gentry wished so hard to avoid emulating.
And this isn’t just about Nashville. Again, it’s about McPizza. Nashville is a canary, a test case, a harbinger. A reminder that growth, without smart, unified leadership, can do much more harm than good.
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