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.