Them Ol' Red-State Blues

Putting uppity Tennesseans in their place, and a theory of a unifying principle

Just a little more about the election. I'll get back to more important stuff next week, I promise.

First, a couple of corrections: I erred a few weeks ago when I averred that Al Gore's campaign in 2000 was the first time that Tennessee voters ever rejected a Tennessean who was a major-party candidate for president. I still can't quite figure that one out. Tennessee voted for Gore twice in the '80s and '90s to represent us in the Senate. Tennessee liked the idea of Gore being vice-president, and voted for the Democratic Clinton-Gore ticket twice, in 1992 and 1996. (Some would have us believe that was an impossibly long time ago; blue-state status is now considered inherently contrary to Tennessee's nature.) By 2000, Tennessee as a state had voted to put Gore in national office four times in the previous 12 years. But when he ran for president, after eight years of serving as an especially active vice-president, we said, "Hell, no, son, what are you thinking? Don't you see that George Bush's son, George Bush, wants to be president? Why, he seems like a nice fella. Not a smarty-pants like you. Go to your room."

However, I was wrong about one thing: the 2000 election wasn't the first time that Tennessee voters went against a Tennessean who was a major-party nominee. Or the last time Tennessee voted against one who won the national popular vote. It actually happened in 1844, when Tennesseans preferred Kentuckian Henry Clay, the Whig, over our own James K. Polk. The elderly Andrew Jackson had backed fellow Democrat Polk, and that didn't help: The party founded to oppose the Tennessee president was nowhere more popular than in Tennessee. The Knoxville area was particularly wiggy over the Whigs.

The difference between 1844 and 2000, of course, is that in 1844 the Tennessean, having lost his own state, won the office; the Polk administration is considered one of the most efficiently successful in history. To date, Tennessee voters haven't favored a presidential candidate from Tennessee since we favored incumbent Andrew Jackson over Henry Clay in 1832. And many of us soon turned against Jackson, perhaps making it harder for Polk 12 years later.

Tennessean Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was never a nominee for president. So in history three Tennesseans have run as major-party candidates—Jackson, Polk, and Gore—and we've dissed two of them. Both were more popular nationwide than they were here. The record suggests that for the last 175 years, we have consistently disliked the idea of putting a Tennessean in the White House.

Even voting for Clinton/Gore in the '90s was unusually charitable of us. The last time a Tennessean had run in the VP slot, in '56, we helped elect Eisenhower and Nixon over Adlai Stevenson and former University of Tennessee Vol Estes Kefauver.

Tennessee has, I think, some contrarian instincts. We don't like our neighbors to rise beyond their rearing.

In another article, I alleged that Barack Obama would be the youngest president since Kennedy. As reader Joe Ossenmacher-Bedford pointed out, Bill Clinton was one year younger when he was first elected in 1992. That surprised me. Maybe the paunch and graying bristle threw me off.

As regulars on this page know, the latest craze of dividing the country into "red states" and "blue states" based on how each voted in the last presidential election is one of my favorite innovations in modern pseudosociology. This month, Tennessee once again appeared a sea of bright red, obscuring deeper complexities. Never mind the Democrats; the state was already sharply divided in February, between the three Republican candidates. The state as a whole went for the family-values man, Mike Huckabee. The Nashville area preferred the more sharply tailored Mitt Romney. There was a sharp difference, though, east of the Cumberlands: Knox County and much of East Tennessee went for John McCain. The way people vote is often more interesting than the results of their vote, which sometimes has a ghostly historical resonance. As I mentioned in a column then, McCain Tennessee was roughly the part of the state that had the nerve to go Republican 140 years ago

Within Knoxville, one precinct that swims against the stream, or sort of sideways, is 24Q, Sequoyah Hills. Outwardly, it's predictably Republican, maybe the most consistently Republican precinct in Knoxville. I bet Sequoyah even went for Alf Landon in '36. Two years ago, in the U.S. Senate race, 24Q picked Corker over Ford, no surprise. But on that same ballot was an initiative to ban gay marriage in Tennessee. It passed statewide overwhelmingly, by a margin of more than 50 points. It passed in Knox County. It passed in most precincts in Knoxville, including many precincts that strongly favored Ford, the Democrat. It failed decisively, about three to two, in Sequoyah Hills. A lot of Sequoyah Hill folk who voted for the Republican Corker voted against the gay-marriage ban.

That neighborhood stood out again this month. The controversial charter amendments, one to centralize the non-ideological county fee offices as mayoral departments, the other to dramatically reduce the size of County Commission, adding two at-large seats, rang liberal to some ears. Both were condemned by the Knox County Republican Party.

But on election day, all the Democratic Knox County precincts, the ones that went whole-hog for Obama, voted against one or both amendments, sometimes by large margins. The extreme Democratic central-city precincts and the extremely Republican rural precincts of Knox County seemed unified in their hatred of the amendments, especially number four.

Only two precincts voted to approve both amendments. One was Republican Deane Hill. The other, much more decisively, was Republican Sequoyah Hills.

But maybe it's the vote of the opposite fringes that suggests the secret to future unity: bring black and white, young and old, Red and Blue together under a common banner: the We're Agin It Party.

It doesn't much matter what we're agin. Whatever you got. That's something that can bring all Tennesseans together.