Tennessee is a battleground state, with a fighting temperament since it was settled 200 years ago by the likes of Andrew Jackson and went on to produce so many soldiers it came to be known as the Volunteer State. This was a frontier battleground in the 1790s, from which Jackson launched his wars on the Indians and the British. It was a military battleground in the 1860s, when Yankee troops swept down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on their way to Mississippi and through Chattanooga's Lookout Mountain on their way to Atlanta and the sea. It has been a cultural battleground for much of the 20th century. On one side were the Fugitives, writers like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, who contributed to "I'll Take My Stand," a manifesto calling for retaining the South's rural economy and heritage. On the other side have been business leaders and politicians who have made Tennessee the fastest-growing state of the interior South: Tennessee has given birth to the first supermarket (a Piggly Wiggly), the Holiday Inn, Federal Express and Goo-Goo Clusters.
This state has also been a marshaling ground for the music traditions that have a large place in Americans' lives. East Tennessee is one of the homes of bluegrass music and mountain fiddling, with string bands and vocal harmony; Knoxville's Tennessee Barn Dance has been broadcast since 1942. Gospel music has long been centered in Nashville, which is also the nation's leading center of religious publishing. Country music got its commercial start in Nashville, with broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Ryman Auditorium starting in 1925; Nashville remains indisputably the capital of country music. The Mississippi lowlands around Memphis, economically and culturally the metropolis of the Mississippi Delta, gave birth to the blues in the years from the 1890s to 1920; and the blues were in turn the inspiration for the jazz musicians of Beale Street in the 1920s and Elvis Presley, whose Graceland mansion is now a major tourist destination, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tennessee is and has long been a political battleground. Its political divisions have their roots in the Civil War, and many counties today still vote their 1860s loyalties: The Union counties, mainly in the east but with a scattering to the west, vote solidly Republican, while the Confederate counties in middle and west Tennessee long voted heavily Democratic. Within the limits of these enduring party loyalties, political entrepreneurs have set the tone for the state. From the 1920s to 1948, Edward Crump, longtime mayor of Memphis, used his total control of Democratic primary votes there to elect governors and senators. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the cheap electric power it generated provided an institutional base for reform liberal Democrats Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore Sr., elected to the Senate in 1948 and 1952. They were soon national figures, with reliable enough backing from Tennessee's yellow-dog Democratic majority to vote for civil rights bills and to refuse to sign the segregationist Southern Manifesto. Kefauver died in 1963 and Gore was defeated in 1970, but lived on to see his son twice elected vice president, before dying in December 1998. Tennessee has never had a large black population--16% in 2000, half of whom live in and around Memphis--and the state was not riven by the racial animosity that seared so much of the South in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks in large part to the actions of its leading politicians, but also to the continuing hold of ancestral partisan preferences.
Today the political balance has changed, and Tennessee has become a mostly Republican state. Democrats' cultural liberalism has moved rural voters in west and middle Tennessee away from their ancestral loyalties, and the surging growth in the ring of counties around Nashville in the 1990s has created a new voting bloc that is conservative on both economic and cultural issues. The first movement toward the Republicans occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, symbolized by the elections of Republican Senators Howard Baker and Bill Brock in 1966 and 1970, and Republican Governor Lamar Alexander in 1978. Then, as Jimmy Carter changed the image of the Democratic Party, Democrats rallied; Democrats Jim Sasser and Al Gore were elected to the Senate in 1976 and 1984, and Democrat Ned Ray McWherter was elected governor in 1986.
This movement was still strong enough for the Clinton-Gore ticket to carry Tennessee 47%-42% in 1992. But the narrowness of the margin was a warning of what was ahead. In 1994 Tennessee turned against the Clinton administration and produced a kind of political revolution. Republican Fred Thompson, famous as a Watergate investigator and movie actor, won the remainder of Gore's Senate term by a landslide, surgeon Bill Frist beat Sasser, and Republican Don Sundquist was elected governor. Republicans won a majority of the vote for the U.S. House, gaining two seats and coming close in a third. The Republican trend was strong enough in 1996 that only after extraordinary efforts--Gore made 16 appearances here and the campaign pumped in money for late ads--was the Clinton-Gore ticket able to win by a narrow 48%-46% margin.
In 2000 the tide was even stronger. George W. Bush targeted the state early and worked it energetically; the Gore campaign, though headquartered in Nashville, seemed to assume it would come around in the end, and only campaigned hard here in the last few days. Bush carried the state 51%-47% and Gore became only the fourth major party nominee to lose his home state in 85 years (the others were South Dakota's George McGovern in 1972, Kansas' Alf Landon in 1936 and New Jersey's Woodrow Wilson in 1916). In his gracious concession speech, Gore noted that he had some fence-mending to do in Tennessee, but the problem was not that he was personally unpopular; the problem was that the issue positions and cultural tone of the Clinton-Gore administration was alien and grating in rural Tennessee and in the suburban subdivisions expanding from Nashville and other cities out into the countryside. The 2002 election saw some move back to Tennessee Democrats: Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen won the governorship by 51%-48%. Tennessee has now alternated the parties in the governor's office at eight-year intervals for a quarter-century. Democrats, aided by partisan redistricting, also picked up one congressional district and maintained control of the legislature. But Republican Lamar Alexander, 20 years after he won his second election as governor, was elected to the U.S. Senate by a 54%-44% margin. In 2004 Bush carried Tennessee by a solid 57%-43% margin and Republicans won the popular vote for the House and, for the first time since Reconstruction, elected a majority of state senators.
This is a Tennessee that is expanding economically but is not abandoning its cultural roots. If its economy lagged behind the nation's through much of the 20th century, its respect for hard work and its open climate for entrepreneurism have enabled it to grow mightily in its last decades and in the first years of the 21st. The expansion started in the early 1980s, when Alexander helped bring big auto plants to middle Tennessee. The lack of strong unions and of bitter racial divisions--Tennessee was mostly untouched by the racial strife of the 1930s and the civil rights strife of the 1960s--attracted Japanese companies here, which in turn attracted General Motors.
When the country music business boomed, so did tourism. Nashville is also a health care center. The Nashville establishment traditionally supported Democrats in Tennessee politics, but now Nashville money has become heavily Republican: metro Nashville gave $9.3 million, mostly to Republicans, in the 2004 cycle, with $4.6 million coming from just three zip codes--37205, 37215 and 37027.
Despite all that growth, Tennessee state politics has become, well, a battleground. Tennessee grew more rapidly than most of its neighboring states in the 1990s in part because of its low taxes. It has no income tax (the state Supreme Court ruled in 1931 that the state Constitution didn't list the income tax as one the legislature could impose, and so it couldn't) and it ranks low on the list of state and local taxes as a percentage of per capita income. But since Governor Ned Ray McWherter created the TennCare program in 1994, spending has accelerated--from $2.5 billion in 1995 to $8 billion in 2004 on TennCare alone. For three straight years beginning in 1999, Republican Governor Don Sundquist, elected on a no-income-tax platform in 1994, called for and failed to get an income tax. In July 2002 the legislature compromised and raised the sales tax from 6% to 7%. Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, elected on a no-tax-increase pledge in 2002, kept his word. He got the budget balanced in 2003 and in December 2004, after public interest lawyers challenged the TennCare cuts he persuaded the legislature to enact, scaled back the program considerably.