Spat Among Tennessee Lawmakers Illustrates a National Urban-Rural Divide

Decentralizing power is better than trying to jam one vision down the throats of the unwilling.


The drama in Tennessee over lawmakers expelled from the legislature for protesting in favor of gun restrictions on the floor of the House, only for one of them to be reappointed to the seat, can be framed in several ways. It can be seen as a lawmaker punished for abusing the rules of the legislative body. It's also obviously a partisan battle between majority Republicans and opposition Democrats. It has been presented in racial terms, since the ejected members are black. But the confrontation also represents deep and growing disagreements between rural and urban Americans who hold divergent values, prefer very different laws, and inevitably clash in an excessively centralized country.

"The contentious ouster of Tennessee state lawmakers Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis is the latest skirmish in a longstanding power struggle between Republicans who control the state's politics and Democrats in charge of its fast-growing cities," Ginger Adams Otis wrote this week for The Wall Street Journal. "Tennessee is an extreme example of a polarized power dynamic playing out in many parts of the U.S. where red states contend with blue cities."

You could flip the dynamic around and talk about the tension between red counties in blue states, seen in local refusal to enforce gun laws. Either way, it's an expression of the growing divide between the people who live in sparsely populated areas as opposed to those in densely populated cities. Unsurprisingly, people who have chosen to live in very different ways often have incompatible ideas about how life is best lived and the rules, if any, that should prevail.

Disagreements About Almost Everything

As demonstrated in the Tennessee kerfuffle, rural and urban Americans disagree over self-defense rights, with rural dwellers favoring the pro-liberty position while city residents are more likely to support restrictions. Flip those positions when it comes to another hot-button issue: abortion. "Americans in urban and rural communities have widely different views when it comes to social and political issues. From feelings about President Donald Trump to views on immigration and same-sex marriage, there are wide gaps between urban and rural adults," Pew Research polling found in 2018.

This isn't a new divide—once upon a time pundits talked about disagreements between "hicks and slicks" over how the country should be run. But as local rule has been displaced by state governments, and state capitals are marginalized by would-be czars in Washington, D.C., top-down dictates have created more unfortunate opportunities for clashes and rebellion.

Covid-19 became a flashpoint for resentment in areas where social distancing is daily life and lockdowns imposed from afar looked more dangerous than a virus. "Coronavirus restrictions are being written that look to some like they were crafted only with city folks in mind," NPR acknowledged in 2020.

When the federal government offered pandemic relief funds, officials were surprised to be spurned by some rural areas. "Town leaders who refused the latest federal grants say they lack infrastructure, struggling businesses, essential workers or public health efforts to spend the money on," Stateline reported.

Education has now replaced public health policy as grounds for disagreement. When Pew Research examined public school mission statements, it found some big differences when it comes to ideologically charged diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments. "Urban and suburban school districts are at least twice as likely as those in rural areas to mention this issue."

As these urban/rural disagreements have continued, evolved, and grown over the years, they are increasingly framed in partisan terms. That's understandable as the major parties come to represent opposing factions in the battle over whose vision of the good life should be imposed on the losers.

"The 2020 election revealed a stark divide between rural and small-town voters — who overwhelmingly supported Republicans — and those in cities and suburbs, who favored Democrats," Guian McKee of the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs wrote after the last presidential election. "Today's blue/red divide then plays out not between regions — as we saw in the famous 2000 electoral map, which introduced the concept of such divisions and pitted red states vs. blue ones — but between metropolitan and rural areas within states."

Sorry. The Divide Can't Be Wished Away.

Unfortunately, city dwellers sometimes fantasize about resolving the dispute through the supposedly inevitable decline of an impoverished and disempowered countryside. That's not going to happen.

"In fact, parts of rural America are thriving, even as other parts decline; just as parts of urban America continue to lose population and face economic decline as other parts comeback," Richard Florida and Karen M. King cautioned in a 2019 University of Toronto paper even before Covid-19 reset assumptions.

With many businesses closed and remote work normalized, the pandemic accelerated a preexisting "big sort" of Americans from areas where they had to live to those they preferred. "While deaths from the virus itself was absolutely a factor in the decline [of urban population], the fact of the matter is that tens of thousands of residents moved away from some of the nation's biggest, most densely populated, and costly metropolitan areas," Sarah Lawrence College's Samuel J. Abrams wrote last year.

School Choice? Why Not Everything Choice?

Interestingly, there are some shared views that point to a path forward. Across urban, suburban, and rural populations, Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike, school choice is overwhelmingly popular. Majorities of Americans favor giving "parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child's education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs."

Just as there is no reason to fight over school lesson content if you can choose the education environment that suits your family, so there is no reason to battle over policies if, instead of being imposed from the top down, they're decided locally or by individuals. Locally determined policies are more likely than those decreed from afar to be tolerable by those to whom they apply. They're also more easily escaped with a move to a friendlier jurisdiction. It's easier to migrate from town to town than to another state—or another country.

"People can vote with their feet by choosing which states or local governments they wish to live under, through international migration, and in the private sector," George Mason University's Ilya Somin urged in 2020. "We can make foot voting more accessible by decentralizing more policy issues to states, localities, and the private sector, and by loosening restrictions on the establishment of new private communities."

Just as discussions of blue and red states conceal deeper rural and urban divisions, it's easy to overstate commonalities among city dwellers and country residents alike. New York City isn't Phoenix, and northern New Hampshire isn't Appalachia. People in these areas differ, even if the population divide is deeper. That's all the more reason to refrain from imposing top-down policies on people who will resent them and most likely refuse to submit.

Tennessee lawmakers' protests and punishments over gun control emphasize the reality that Americans have incompatible preferences in many areas of life. Somehow, we have to learn to live with one another. Decentralizing power is a better way forward than trying to jam one vision down the throats of the unwilling and dealing with the resulting new round of battles.