For more than 20 years, Nashville has been ruled by a loose alliance of pro-business liberals and nobility, which has kept the anti-tax conservative right at bay. The gentry were not necessarily in favor of growth, but as long as it was well managed and to their advantage, they followed. It 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 modernize the city’s transit infrastructure, which had the approval of the gentry but faced fierce opposition from the ideological right (sustained by the money of the Koch brothers Americans for Prosperity). His downfall not only doomed the plan, but also shattered public confidence in the liberal-gentry alliance.
In the absence of this leadership, Nashville, which just a few years ago felt like a promised land for those fleeing the problems of big cities, faces several challenges of its own. The first is affordability. House prices are skyrocketing, crowding 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, travel becomes unbearable.
Second, there is the culture shock between progressives and Trumpists. School board meetings over mask warrants turned into armed robbery, instigated in part by right-wing provocateurs. Nashville is the capital of Tennessee, making it the hotbed of battles over Red State issues like transgender rights and Confederate monuments. These conflicts can be easy to dismiss as side effects, but if left unresolved they can poison the kind of consensus building that long-term planning demands.
Third, the city’s budget and the failure of the rulers to take advantage of its good fortune. In a state without income tax, local property taxes are vital sources of government revenue. Still, Nashville has repeatedly rejected efforts to keep them in line with rising valuations. This has resulted in cuts to education, public works and infrastructure, and ruled out the possibility of major projects that could move the city forward (although the city council recently voted to increase teachers’ salaries).
Taken together, these issues represent a fundamental challenge for the leadership of the gentry, even if they make it more difficult to take over either faction. The Liberals have the upper hand, with President Biden capturing the highest percentage of the city’s vote since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. But the left is unlikely to play a leading role in a city that covers 526 square miles, largely exurban or rural, a metropolitan structure that was, ironically, one of the great achievements of the city’s last liberal-aristocratic alliance in the 1960s. And there is a rising populist left, including an adversary main seriousness for Jim Cooper next year, who questions the historic pro-business orientation among the Liberals.
But there are enough people on the left, however turbulent, to make up for the populist right, which despite the arrival of national mascots like Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren – all 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 nobility will not touch them, and their boisterous division makes them hard to sell among the moderate middle of Nashville.
The result is chaos. A city that has so many assets – tourism, technological and financial relocation, millions of educated young migrants – is fatally crippled by a political leadership that has lost control but cannot yet cede power to a successor. In its absence, growth will continue; Nashville is still a fun and relatively affordable place to live. But this growth will be unguided and metastatic. In other words, it will be Atlanta – the very thing the nobility so badly wanted to avoid emulating.