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A Letter From Knoxville
Life under the Great Sort
So we went to a party the other night. It was Caribbean-themed (the dress code was “St. Bart’s Chic” – I wore a white dinner jacket and, in a Jimmy Buffett tribute, added a lobster lapel pin for “a white sport coat and a pink crustacean,” which left me a tad overdressed for the crowd, but admired for the creativity).
Helen wore a lovely tropical party dress, but I don’t know if she’d be enthused by my sharing a picture here.
It was a fairly fancy event at the home of a prominent Knoxville woman, but it got me thinking about how much of our social life now involves people who aren’t from here. Over the past two or three years, we’ve spent increasing amounts of time partying with refugees. Not Haitian or Vietnamese boat people, but rather people who have fled the blue states to come here.
We now have multiple friends who’ve moved here from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, even Hong Kong, to escape leftist tyranny, and it’s done wonders for our social life, such as it is. (We’re really not very big partiers, but we are getting out more than we used to). The downside of the flow into Knoxville from blue states and cities is that it has shot real estate prices way up, making this place barely affordable for young couples looking for a starter house. (Maybe not even barely affordable). The upside is that the people flowing here are people we find congenial.
Some are rich (we have one friend who rode out Covid at Blackberry Farm, where they have a house, and decided to stay and buy a place in Knoxville), some aren’t so rich. I was talking a while back with a retired Oregon State Trooper who had literally had duty trying to guard the federal building in Portland from Antifa and took retirement sooner than planned in disgust. He had originally intended to move to Illinois to look after his parents post-retirement, but instead he moved them down to Knoxville, too. The assortment of bumper stickers on his large pickup truck made clear that he’s not bringing leftist politics with him. Given that his folks were from downstate, I doubt they are either.
That’s not what I had feared. When the Blue State Exodus started, I was afraid that the people coming here would bring bad habits with them, the way the Californians who moved to Colorado or Idaho have done. But those people were fleeing high taxes and congestion, rather than leftist attitudes. The people moving now are more like internal variants on Cuban or Venezuelan immigrants, eager to oppose what they fled their homes to escape.
I think this phenomenon is more general. I’ve had the good fortune to read Roger Simon’s forthcoming book, American Refugees, which tells pretty much the same story all over the South. Roger was a trendsetter, moving several years ago from the Hollywood Hills (he literally lived in Marilyn Monroe’s old house) to a house formerly owned by a country music star in Nashville.
He, his wife Sheryl, and their daughter have made themselves at home in Tennessee, but one thing they’ve noticed is that the locals are often more complacent about politics than they are. Having always lived in a fairly conservative state, native Tennesseans don’t always grasp just how bad things can get, and how fast that can happen. They’re also not as quick to notice the camel’s nose in the tent as are people who have seen it before.
Roger’s book talks about the role that immigrants have played in stiffening the spine of local politicians, and even local activists and voters. I’m seeing less of that so far in Knoxville, but I do hear people talking about getting more politically organized now that they’re here. The city of Knoxville is basically blue – it’s about 40-45% Republican, but the local GOP doesn’t run a full slate of candidates, and the ones they run aren’t as good as they ought to be sometimes. The result is that we have a largely Democrat-run city government, even as the surrounding county becomes redder and has as its county mayor Glenn Jacobs, a former professional wrestler who leans right-libertarian. (And who, as I can attest from one-on-one conversation, actually has quite a sophisticated understanding of political history and political philosophy.) To some degree, the Great Sort is happening even at the county level here, with more Republicans moving outside city limits, and more Democrats moving the other way.
That said, a better Republican political operation could easily win in the low-turnout Knoxville city elections if they bothered to. Helen and I were watching the AppleTV show Physical, set in San Diego in the early 1980s, where the Democrat thinks he’s winning a local election until suddenly busloads of Mormons organized by his Republican nemesis show up at the polls, and I was reflecting that something similar could work here. Out of a city population of 190,000 or so,* our mayoral elections usually involve less than 10% of that number voting. It wouldn’t take a very big GOP turnout effort to flip some of those. And I think the local Democrats know that – when crime became an issue, our ineffectual-but-woke police chief found herself swiftly out of a job, replaced by a man who seems more dedicated to maintaining public order.
At any rate, I don’t know where all this will lead, but I’m happy that the blue state influx doesn’t seem to be making my community any more leftist. And if it’s improved our social life, so much the better.
The Knoxville metro population is nearly a million, but the actual city of Knoxville is a relatively small part of that.