Tennessee's Red-State Blues

We're awash in crimson, for now—but what does that really mean?

A couple of years ago, a researcher telephoned me looking for advice about researching constitutional law. He was from up north somewhere, had been traveling a lot working on a project, and said he'd need to do some overnight work in Knoxville. It's not my specialty, but I outlined what I knew about the University of Tennessee's law library and suggested he might try to look up a few side subjects at the Calvin McClung Historical Collection.

"Tennessee's a red state, isn't it?" he asked, matter-of-factly, as you might ask about the climate or the sales tax.

I acknowledged that it was sometimes painted that way. He sounded a little anxious about that, as if it might affect both his welcome and the accessibility of information. He said that as a researcher, he'd found "red states" more difficult to deal with than others.

I told him I hoped he'd be surprised. But I don't know whether he was or not.

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While we weren't looking, Tennessee does seem to have become dyed in the wool as a "red state," a state the votes Republican in presidential races every four years.

For most of its history, Tennessee was never subjected to the finality of a political label. By the recent criteria defining a state's color, Tennessee was often a "blue state" as recently as 1996. But the term wasn't popularly used until the 2000 election, which was the election in which Tennessee, for the first time in 156 years, finally produced a major-party nominee. For reasons of its own, Tennessee, which had elected—and re-elected—Al Gore to the U.S. Senate, and then elected—and re-elected—him as Clinton's vice president, turned on its heel and preferred George W. Bush. That gesture seemed to finalize things for Tennessee.

Now it's considered a "red state," as if it couldn't be anything else. For the first time since before World War I, Tennessee is no longer considered a swing state.

No one's predicting this year will be any different. Barring a major surprise, 2012 will mark the first time in history that Tennessee has gone Republican four elections in a row.

Few Republicans weep about Tennessee's newfound consistency, but predictability comes with some melancholy. For folks who like to take a good look at the candidates, or just show their kids that part of the political process, political predictability has an isolating effect. Chances are, 2012 won't be like, say, 1968, when both major-party candidates, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, plus third-party candidate George Wallace, gave public speeches in Knoxville.

Lately, Democrats don't see a chance in Tennessee, and Republicans find more urgent uses of their time. In the last presidential-election year, neither of the major-party candidates, or their running mates, visited Knoxville. It was a remarkable year in that regard. It's not clear when the last time Knoxville was so blank on candidates' itineraries, but it was sometime before 1952.

Since World War II, Knoxville has heard in-person campaign speeches from Adlai Stevenson, Robert Taft, Estes Kefauver, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, Bob Dole, Ross Perot, Al Gore, and both George Bushes, several times each. No one could ignore Tennessee's third-biggest population center, because Tennessee was for decades a swing state, one that might go Republican or might go Democrat, depending on how any given candidate presented himself.

The 12 years since Al Gore gave a speech at McGhee Tyson Airport may be the longest period since the 19th century that no Democratic nominee—or running mate—has visited Knoxville to campaign. That record could probably be extended to nominee spouses, and running mate's spouses. On the Democratic Party's 21st-century political map, Knoxville might as well be in Ontario. Except that President Obama has actually visited Ontario.

Politically, the city hasn't been so completely ignored, and frankly ignorable, in more than 60 years.

It's 2012, and maybe time to consider what it means to be a red state. Spun some ways, a state that votes Republican bears fruit in the form of increasing population. The Tax Foundation, a generally conservative think tank, recently looked at demographic trends concerning red states and sees good news. According to figures derived from the Internal Revenue Service, blue states are bleeding population into the red states.

Based on the period from 1993 to 2008, of the 10 states that lost population due to domestic migration—moving from one state to another—nine of the losers were "blue states" that voted Democratic in 2008. And of the 10 that gained the most population from domestic migration—Tennessee is #8—five were Republican "red states" in 2008. Much of that migration follows the decades-long pattern of moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt—the red states gaining population are all sunny states with mild winters—but the Tax Foundation's preferred assumption is that these nomads are pursuing lower taxes in the red states.

Some red-state characteristics are less magnetic than low taxes.

Regardless of the party's aptitude for dealing with any given issue, red states have some challenges in the realm of public relations. A recent motion picture by Kevin Smith, the trendy director of Clerks and Mallrats, stars John Goodman, and is called Red State. It's not a romantic comedy. It's a horror movie, about heavily armed fundamentalists.

Certain partisans like to point out correlations between red states and higher murder rates, higher divorce rates, higher obesity rates, higher illiteracy rates, and, ironically, considering that welfare is a target of Republican rhetoric, higher food-stamp rates. Some of those relationships may be coincidental—or their connections to politics may be complicated or contrary.

People who perceive families coming apart in their own communities, for example, may be more apt to vote for candidates who promise a national embrace of traditional family values. Those who live in a state with a high murder rate may feel more anxious about protecting their own families with guns, and most alert to pro-gun messages. Citizens who perceive excesses in food-stamp usage in their own neighborhood may be the ones most likely to vote for those who would limit them.

Some of the national jeering about "red states" is blatantly prejudicial, of course, not to mention silly. But some data's interesting.

Ten years ago, Carnegie-Mellon economics professor Richard Florida published a much-talked-about nonfiction best-seller, The Rise of the Creative Class. His theory that America is at the forefront of a global technological elite based on creativity is still debated. But for some, the most unsettling part of his book is not a theory, or a speculation, but just a demographic observation based on some pretty startling correlations of various urban rankings.

The high-tech revolution that was enlivening the American economy, Florida noted, was happening almost entirely in the socially liberal parts of America, specifically those that were most welcoming to gays. Seattle and San Francisco and Boston are among America's most liberal metropolitan areas and among the chief regions leading the nation's technological innovation. Microsoft, eBay, Craigslist, Apple, Google, Cisco Systems, Intel, Pandora, and Hewlett-Packard are all headquartered on the West Coast, where most of them were founded, mostly from Silicon Valley, Calif., north to Seattle. On political maps, the Left Coast is one of the most liberal sections of America.

Comparing studies of the 1990s, Florida wrote, "The same places that were poplar among gays were also the ones where high-tech industry located." It's not that computer-savvy professionals tend to be gay, said Florida, but that places that are welcoming to gays also tend to be welcoming to other unconventionally creative people, including brainy tech geeks. A gay-friendly community, he posits, makes recruiting all sorts of talented techies easier.

In his book, Florida avoided specific references to political parties, and insists he's not partisan, identifying himself as a fiscal conservative. But his observation, to some, implied that the socially conservative parts of America—the red states—were becoming a sort of tech ghetto.

That irritated a lot of conservatives. In 2002, it seemed as if it could have been a challenge to business-minded conservative America to get its act together and reward Republican states by investing in red-state technological innovators—to launch a rival to Apple or Amazon in Alabama, say.

It hasn't happened yet. In the 10 years since, the divide between high-tech blue-state America and low-tech red-state America has become only more stark. Facebook and YouTube both spawned in the bluest parts of California.

Last month, an article titled "If Republicans are So Great for Business, Why Does Silicon Valley Support Democrats?" appeared on Yahoo! Finance, a financial-reporting website. The accompanying video report cites figures that in that remarkably successful "business region," 80-90 percent of business people vote Democratic, and contribute to Democratic causes. The text raised the question, "Why does one of the most successful business regions of America overwhelmingly vote Democratic?"

Their rather vague answer is that the nation's cutting-edge techies are social liberals, and, for reasons of their own, weigh that more heavily than fiscal conservatism that might personally save them money. It might once have seemed counterintuitive that hard-working millionaires would support a party associated with higher income taxes, but tax policy may be beside the point. They support liberal social issues, and generally liberal social issues are, for whatever reason, appealing to America's high-tech talent, and good for business.

Good for them, one might respond. But is any of that bad for Tennessee?

Knoxville has no Silicon Valley-scale software giants, but does host some significant high-tech video production companies that recruit nationally, notably Scripps Networks Interactive, which employs about 1,000 in Knoxville. (Note: Scripps Networks is no longer directly associated with the E.W. Scripps Co., owner of Metro Pulse.) Some Knoxville recruiters have been known to worry, privately, that the showy right-wing antics of the Republican-controlled state Legislature harms their image. The "Don't Say Gay" bill, for example, can seem harmlessly hilarious to moderates, and proponents claim it's misunderstood, but even though it's stalled by the prospect of a gubernatorial veto, it has gained national attention. It has become a cause for Hollywood producer Del Shores and others. (Based on the e-mails I get, it may be cited more often on the West Coast than it is by Tennessee conservatives.) It has succeeded in bringing national attention to Tennessee, if not the sort of attention some business people would like to see.

Last year, Tennessee's Republican Legislature passed a law, the Equal Access Interstate Commerce Act, that effectively barred Nashville from implementing a local ordinance banning discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transgendered people. The bill that negated Nashville's initiative was overwhelmingly popular among state Republicans, and opposed only by Democrats, including Knoxville's Harry Tindell and Joe Armstrong.

Businesses generally don't find it politic to get involved in politics, but the passage of the law bothered some of Scripps' top executives. Scripps Networks International's president, Jim Samples, remarked on it in a public forum in Knoxville in October.

"I can confirm through conversations I've had with people we sought to attract to Tennessee, or frankly people who grew up here who are looking to leave, that this sort of legislation sends a message that it's okay to discriminate here," Samples said. "And our intent is to attract the best and the brightest, so anything we do either through the legislative process or the way we're communicating our policies that communicates that ‘You're not welcome' or ‘You're less welcome' is a problem.... It hurts business."

It's a new sort of complaint. The Republican Party, whatever else it was, was always the pro-business party. But social conservatism is raising questions about the party's priorities here and elsewhere. Republican Alabama's extremely conservative scrutiny of foreigners, meant to appeal to its patriotic base, alienated a German Mercedes executive who found himself under arrest there.

How social conservatives gained such a strong grip on Tennessee's Republican Party is quite a long story, and comes with some ironies.

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Swing states were once a rarity in the South, but Tennessee was an exception. In the 20 presidential elections before 2000, Tennessee was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, 10-10. The fact that it had a Republican wobble made it stand apart from the Solid South. And when Tennessee did swing Republican, it was rarely a cross-state consensus: East Tennessee was usually driving it.

How Tennessee evolved from swing state to red state is not perfectly simple.

The Solid South was solidly Democratic—the Civil War, after all, began as a regional reaction to the Republican Party's first national success. In Tennessee 150 years ago, secessionists attacked Lincoln's Republican Party as the "abolition party." Republican presidential candidates never even appeared on local ballots until 1868.

For almost half a century, Tennessee marched in step with the South. From 1872 through 1916, Tennessee chose only Democrats for president, albeit often by narrow margins. Tennessee's Democratic Party's biggest challenge was always the state's political oddity, East Tennessee, the most populous of the state's three grand divisions, and, for well over a century, the most thoroughly Republican region in the South. For decades, Republicans were associated with Civil War Unionists, and with punitive Reconstruction policies. The old Unionist part of the state liked Republicans; the old Confederate parts of the state did not.

East Tennessee has favored the Republican Party for a century and a half. During the depths of the Great Depression, when the GOP was painted as the party of the rich, East Tennessee voted for it. In the 1870s, when it was seen in most of the South as the heavy-handed Yankee civil-rights party, it was fine with East Tennessee. Historically, East Tennesseans vote Republican like they root for the Vols. Big-government, little-government, interventionist, isolationist, no-tax, new-tax, it's the Republican for us.

The Second Congressional District, with Knoxville as its urban center, is the most consistently Republican district in the entire United States. The office comes up every two years, but the Second has not elected a single Democrat since before the Civil War.

What made East Tennessee so Republican isn't quite as obvious as we like to think. We often mention something about rugged Appalachian-mountain individualism. It's flattering, and befitting of the GOP's currently popular self-image, but as a coherent theory is raises a couple of puzzles. One is that other equally "Appalachian" parts of the region aren't nearly as Republican as East Tennessee is. Though the state line's only about 50 miles away from Knoxville, Western North Carolina supported the Confederacy, and for many decades supported Democrats almost as solidly as the Deep South.

Another problem with that thesis is that the Republican Party East Tennessee has always supported hasn't always been the low-tax, low-regulation party that might seem favored by fierce individualists. Teddy Roosevelt, who favored introducing a federal income tax and moved for federally protected wildernesses and federal food-quality standards, was wildly popular in East Tennessee. Even when he ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive "Bull Moose" ticket—in 1912, Roosevelt was the most liberal of the three top candidates, arguing for a larger federal role in regulating business—East Tennessee liked him, much more than the rest of the South, or for that matter the nation, did.

But the Democrat Woodrow Wilson won Tennessee as a whole that year, and Tennessee helped re-elect him four years later.

On political maps, it looks as if Tennessee proved its independence from the South in 1920, when the state broke from most of the South to tilt for Warren Harding, the first Republican president Tennessee ever helped elect. Tennessee was cool on Coolidge in 1924, but four years later, Tennessee favored the practical no-nonsense Republican Hoover. Neither Harding nor Hoover was popular in the rest of the South. But in both cases, it was mainly East Tennessee's Republican wobble that threw the state off its consistently Democratic course. Though it lacks the state's two biggest cities, East Tennessee is the state's most populous division, and often able to jar the generally Southern voting patterns of the rest of the state.

Later in the century, Southern Democrats, even as they were conservative about race, supported liberals for president. Almost all of the Democrats Tennessee has favored in the last 80 years were arguably "liberal." Tennessee boosted Franklin Roosevelt four times in a row, even as the nation's first radio provocateurs were denouncing him as a Communist. (Tennessee's support for Roosevelt came without much help from East Tennessee, which remained loyal to the party of his cousin Teddy. In 1936, in the depths of the Depression, Republican Alf Landon won two New England states—and East Tennessee.) Then Tennessee followed by voting for Truman—after he'd made national government health-care proposals much more sweeping than Obama's, by any measure more liberal. Trumancare failed in a Republican Congress, but Tennessee voted for Truman in 1948, preferring him to the conservative Dewey by a wider margin than the nation as a whole. (East Tennessee, of course, preferred Dewey.)

By the '50s, we were a Republican state, favoring Eisenhower even as he condemned TVA as "creeping socialism." Unlike most of the South, Tennessee, especially East Tennessee, liked Ike, in 1952 and in 1956, even when a former Knoxvillian—a former UT Vol, no less, named Estes Kefauver—was the Democratic running mate. With the election of 1960, when Tennessee favored Nixon to Kennedy, Tennessee had forsaken the solid South to go Republican three elections in a row.

The weirdest exception was the bizarro-world election of 1964. It was the first year since 1948 that Tennessee went Democratic; and the first year ever that the Deep South went Republican. It took a Southern Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, and his civil-rights legislation, to derail the Solid South to another party. The South was Goldwater Republican in 1964, but four years later preferred one of their own, segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace.

The big national maps for 1968 show Tennessee in Republican red, favoring Nixon. In fact, it was mainly East Tennessee that liked Nixon. But many Tennessee Democrats, skeptical of the liberal Humphrey, stayed home. Without East Tennessee Republicans, Wallace would have won the state. For a while, Republicans seemed once again the progressives.

Ronald Reagan's campaign to break up the old Solid South once and for all was heavily based on social conservatism: reaction to abortion, attempts to limit religion in schools and other public places, "family values" concerning subjects old-fashioned Republicans preferred not to talk about. None of these were previously big Republican planks—in fact, as late as 1978, polls suggested Republicans were more likely to favor legal abortion, for example, than were Democrats. But strategists found social conservatism to have such a strong emotional pull that it tipped the Solid South from Democrat to Republican. The parts of Tennessee that became Republican in 1980 were the formerly Democratic parts of Tennessee. The state broke with its new Republican trend to support Clinton/Gore, but didn't feel the same way about Gore/Lieberman.

If Tennessee's no longer a swing state, it's not necessarily because the state became more conservative. In real terms, in race relations, reproductive choices, support for the environment, it's safe to say the state is much more liberal than it was 50 years ago.

It's no longer a swing state because in the last three presidential elections, the East Tennessee Republican and the Middle and West Tennessee conservative Democrat have voted the same way. Tennessee is now Republican; for the first time, it's hard to find East Tennessee on national maps of by-county returns. Only Tennessee's two most metropolitan areas show Democratic on the county level. (Knoxville, the city, votes Democratic, if you take the trouble to sort it out, precinct by precinct. If that suggests city people are more liberal, it doesn't always. During the Civil War, secessionism was most popular within city limits, too.)

After 1980, the nouveau Republicans, swayed more by social issues than by regulation or taxation policy, dominated formerly Democratic families west of the Cumberlands. Tennessee began showing up in red. But the uniform shade on national maps hide the state's old sectional differences that still persist within the party. An astute political pathologist might insist on a closer look, take a higher-detailed scan that shows county-by-county preferences, looking for irregularities like abnormal cells. And he would find one, a mass called East Tennessee.

A presidential primary can bring them out in sharp relief. Four years ago, the Republican primary offered three main choices: John McCain, who, despite some eccentricities, was an old-fashioned Republican, conservative but not so concerned about social issues; Mike Huckabee, who carried the nouveau-Republican standard of the evangelical social conservative; and Mitt Romney, a pro-business moderate, younger and not quite as well known as McCain.

Tennessee divided itself sharply along familiar lines. Metro Nashville Republicans liked Romney. Tennessee as a whole tilted for Huckabee, who was favored in most of the old Southern Democratic parts of the state. But the core of East Tennessee, the part of the state with more experience voting Republican—the part that had stayed with the Union during the Civil War—favored McCain.

It's almost as clear cut as a dinosaur's footprint.

This Tuesday's primary may show a similar pattern. Some expect Romney, the more traditional Republican, to show stronger in East Tennessee than in most of the rest of the state. But East Tennessee is susceptible to social conservatism, too; state senator Stacey Campfield would have seemed an unlikely East Tennessee Republican leader 20 years ago, or 120 years ago, but the Knoxvillian has become one of the state's loudest voices of social conservatism. Whether his career's a fluke, representing the views of a sliver of Knox County's Republican voters, or a harbinger of a new dominant social conservatism in this formerly old-line Union Republican part of the state, is one of the questions that makes party politics so dependably interesting.

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Then again, it all has to do with math, and the inherent deception inherent in the winner-take-all tradition. In presidential elections recently, the percentage differences between the parties in most American states, including Tennessee, is in the 50s vs. the 40s--so close that a Princeton University project has proposed thinking of America in terms of shades of purple. With counties, not states, shaded by who won them—and shaded reddish blue or bluish red, based not just on winners, but by the relative strength of the losers.

On that Purple America map, red states and blue states don't exist. Looking at the map through history, we can see occasional extremes, a region that turns very red or very blue. Tennessee is not one of them. In the nation's red vs. blue battles, Tennessee is always more or less some shade of purple.