Galt’s Gulch in Music City, USA

This essay originally appeared in City Journal, on May 17, 2021 (here). Thanks to Power Line, Real Clear Policy, Instapundit (here), Real Clear Markets (here), and the Pamphleteer (here)!

People move for many different reasons: climate, housing, employment, education, family, taxes, health, and so forth. During the COVID pandemic, some beleaguered residents relocated to states with less-restrictive policies, such as Florida. In Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, entrepreneurs and thought leaders dissatisfied with the prevailing leftist regime took refuge in a community of likeminded souls, called Galt’s Gulch. They were dissidents, who relocated for political reasons. In Rand’s fictional world, their sanctuary was located in Colorado. In real life 2021, Nashville, Tennessee is attracting a growing number of conservative figures seeking relief from hostile economic policies and an intolerant cancel culture elsewhere. In the process, they are turning Music City, USA and other Tennessee cities into a center-right mecca.

Who are these transplants? Noted free-market economist Art Laffer began the conservative migration in 2006, when he moved from southern California to the Nashville area, primarily for tax reasons. Tennessee has no state income tax and relatively low property taxes. With Laffer’s encouragement, Tennessee eliminated its estate tax as well. Laffer, who compiles an annual ranking of states for the American Legislative Exchange Council entitled Rich States, Poor States, has long championed Tennessee for its favorable economic policies. Tennessee is one of the nation’s most conservative states; President Trump carried Tennessee in November 2020 by a margin of 61% to 37%.

Tennessee also offers a mild, four-season climate, plentiful water, inexpensive electricity, natural beauty, and an abundance of undeveloped land. Fast-growing Nashville, the state capital, recently surpassed Memphis as the Volunteer State’s most populous city. Residents are drawn by Nashville’s music scene, cultural amenities, dynamic economy, and affordable housing.  Nashville has a rich history, and has long been known as the “Athens of the South,” explaining why a full-size replica of the Parthenon was built in Nashville for the Centennial Exposition in 1897. In recent years, as blue states have become increasingly inhospitable to conservatives, many center-right pundits have followed Laffer’s lead.  Not surprisingly, a majority of the new arrivals have fled California, which last year declined in population for the first time in its history.

The cadre of expats now located in the Nashville area include: Sean Davis (co-founder of The Federalist); Roger Simon (novelist, screenwriter, founder and former CEO of PJ Media, and currently senior political analyst for The Epoch Times); Matt Walsh and much of the staff of The Daily Wire; author and commentator Candace Owens; and Fox News personality Tomi Lahren. The Volunteer State, long a bastion of rugged individualism, welcomes John Galt’s intellectual heirs with open arms. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tapes his television show for the Trinity Broadcasting Network in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and Alan Keyes broadcasts his streaming show Let’s Talk America from Pigeon Forge.

Instead of going “on strike” and living in seclusion, as Rand’s heroes did, the outspoken denizens of this 21st century version of Galt’s Gulch are turning the Volunteer State into a conservative platform. California expat Michael Patrick Leahy runs his digital media empire (The Tennessee Star and affiliated sites in the Star News Digital Media family) and three-hour daily radio show (The Tennessee Star Report) from his Nashville headquarters. Supreme Court litigator Cameron Norris of the boutique Beltway firm Consovoy McCarthy discovered—prior to the COVID lockdown–that telecommuting could be done long distance—and moved back to his native east Tennessee. Now that Americans have been introduced en masse to the virtual workplace via Zoom, other blue state dwellers may figure out that they, too, can escape congestion and over-priced real estate by moving to Tennessee.

Nashville is not a conservative utopia; no large city is. Home to Vanderbilt University and many other colleges, Nashville has a young and diverse population with the generally progressive views characteristic of that demographic. Local elected officials tend to be Democratic, unlike the overall statewide political alignment. Other than liberal pockets around the major cities (Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga), Tennessee is solidly red. Governor Bill Lee, Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, and a super-majority of both houses of the Tennessee legislature are Republican. East Tennessee has been represented by a Republican in Congress since the Civil War.

The COVID pandemic and misgovernance of Democrat-run states have prompted internal population shifts. Many residents are leaving New York, Illinois, California, and other poorly-run, high-tax states. Texas and Florida get a lot of attention as a popular destination for those moving, but Tennessee is receiving its share of relocations as well. Based on U-Haul truck rentals, the hallmark of do-it-yourself moves, in 2020 Tennessee “posted the largest net gain of U-Haul trucks crossing its borders…, making it the No. 1 U-Haul growth state for the first time.”

Population growth can have unexpected consequences politically, as Texas is finding out after recruiting many California-based tech companies to relocate to the Lone Star State. The question for Tennessee is whether demographic shifts will make the Volunteer State more conservative—the Galt’s Gulch phenomenon—or less so. Based on the recent arrivals, myself included, I’m betting on the former. Nashville has a long way to go before becoming a woke dystopia such as Austin, and Tennessee is far less urbanized than is Texas (home to four of the nation’s 11 largest cities).  The Scotch-Irish roots of Tennessee’s settlers, exemplified by Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston, tend to make Tennesseans ornery and independent. May it ever be so.

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