NASHVILLE ELECTION REFLECTIONS

11 10 2019

Twenty-one percent of Nashville’s voters turned out on September 12th, meaning that John Cooper’s “landslide victory” over David Briley boils down to 15% of our adult citizens choosing Cooper, while only six percent of the city’s voters preferred Briley. The initial round of voting produced a 24% turnout rate, enough of a decline to demonstrate the advantage of ranked-choice voting, but still such a light turnout that, if all of those who didn’t vote could have weighed in as  “abstaining,” or voted for “neither of the above,” the election could have been declared null and void. But the threshold for election is not 50% of all potential voters, it’s a majority of the actual voters, and so John Cooper, “the choice of 15% of Nashville,” is now our mayor. I’ll have more to say about him a little later.

Why is there such a marked lack of interest in local government? Is it because most people presume that, no matter who is officially in charge, things will remain about the same? That’s a dangerous presumption to make as climate chaos increases and resource depletion and economic collapse loom on the horizon. I once approached an intelligent, innovative, outspoken member of Metro Council, and told her I’d like to see her run for mayor. Her response was, “Got a million dollars? Cos’ that’s what it takes to run for mayor in this town.” She is no longer involved in Metro politics. This election certainly proved her point. Both Briley and Cooper are members of the millionaires’ club. “Who wants to be ruled by a millionaire?” You could call that the “reality show” we’re involved in, like it or not .The drawback to this arrangement is that millionaires, almost no matter how hard they try, are going to have difficulty relating to the kind of problems the rest of us face, and consequently will have difficulty coming up with ideas that speak to the needs of the rest of us.

We need radical change, because it’s well documented by now that “business as usual” is going to get us all killed. On the other hand, it’s difficult for the elite of Nashville, or the elite anywhere, to conceive of anything but the “business as usual” that has made them wealthy and keeps them wealthy. Beyond our ruling class’s limited vision, adherence to “business as usual” here in Tennessee is enforced by our micromanaging state legislature, which seems determined to smother any rising progressive tendencies anywhere in the state.  I should mention that our state government, like our mayor and metro council, are elected by a minority of the state’s voters. In other words, Tennessee is a “red state” not not because a majority of its citizens vote Republican, but because the Democrats are so uninspiring, and the two corporate parties have such a lock on ballot access, and media access, that trying to get a third party going in this state is a truly Sisyphean task. As I’ve chronicled here, we Greens have tried,failed,  and, frankly, all but worn ourselves out in the process. I think we might properly refer to the phase our country is in these days as “the twilight of democracy.” Some people would disagree with me, I’m sure, saying that the sun set long ago on American democracy. I think they have a point. Not just in Tennessee, but nationally, the two corporate-friendly political parties  have, um, “colluded” with our corporate owned and consequently corporate-friendly media to exclude everyone but themselves from the levers of power, even as their support dwindles. Need I remind you that, nationwide, turnout in the 2016 election was 55-60%, depending on how you count it, and around 50% in 2018?  It was less than that here in Tennessee. That means that, in 2016, about 40% of the adult public didn’t care whether Trump or Clinton became President, and then, in 2018, after two years of Trump showing how dangerous he is and the Democrats showing how ineffectual they are at opposing him, even fewer voters thought the Democrats were an alternative worth voting for. When half the adult population sits out the election, the problem we have is not about how easy, or difficult, it is to vote. The problem is that neither party inspires the voting public. Sure, the Republicans were running on a program of brute corporate domination, but all the Democrats had to offer was kinder, gentler corporate domination. Apparently, about half of our voting population is savvy enough to say, “Neither of the above, thank you!”

If only we could get them to vote Green…..

I think that what I just laid out also also explains why, over the last seventy years, political power has pretty reliably flipped from one party to the other every eight years, as well as why Nashvillians, to the extent that we cared at all, dumped Briley and elected Cooper.

The nature of the national flip is that the party in power can’t really fulfil its promises to improve peoples’ lives, so voters lose enthusiasm for that party, and the other one gets in. That party, likewise, can’t make good on its promises to the voters,  and so….as we go round and round, more and more peoples’ faith in the system goes down and down. Similarly, the constraints of our economic system kept David Briley from proposing the kind of measures that would give the city the tax revenue needs to operate the city smoothly, let alone end runaway gentrification and create a more equitable society. We all had our eyes opened when we discovered that the public transit system proposed initially by Mayor Barry and then championed by Briley was not going to provide cheaper transportation for low-income Nasvhillians, as was promised, but instead be a vehicle for neighborhood LINK gentrification that would dispossess low-income Nashvillians and force them to move out of the now-valuable transit corridor, into the decaying suburbs where little or no public transportation, or other services, are available. Yeah, I just said “decaying suburbs.” That’s increasingly going to be a thing.

The constraints of “profits first and foremost” capitalism are so taken for granted by so many Americans that Briley, for all his liberal reputation, might even have been incapable of understanding what it would take to get us out of this mess. The basic reason we have runaway gentrification is that capitalism is a winner take all system in which “the golden rule” means “those who have the gold make the rules.” In the case of real estate, that means they can bid home prices up past the point where low- or even middle-income families can afford to buy or rent a place to live, and the wealthy don’t have to care. Where the losers in our economic system go, and what becomes of them, is “an externality.” Capitalism is essentially unjust, a system in which a few people win and most of us lose. This is a global phenomenon. We’re not going to end capitalism in Nashville as long as it’s the dominant motif of our culture.  At this point, it looks to me as if corporate capitalism is too well entrenched to be overthrown or voted out, and the only thing that will free us from its shackles is the collapse and disintegration of the system. The best we can do is to establish urban land trusts and other co-operative arrangements that will provide alternative structures that have a chance of weathering the coming economic storm. That storm is going to involve a lot of thunder, lightning, floods and earthquakes, both real and metaphorical, and I do not look forward to it. It’s also why I support The Green Party: if there’s any chance we can make a smooth, political transition to a saner society, I’m all for it. A lot fewer people will get hurt that way.

So, what do I think we can expect from Mayor Cooper? There are certainly some positives. He appointed Paulette Coleman of Nashvillians Organized for Action and Hope, to the Metro Housing Authority. He wants to find a way to spread the excessive amounts of tax money that are pouring into downtown Nashville around the city. He attended the 2015 “Co-op Nashville” meeting, so he is aware of the enormous potential that form of business organization holds. He has long been on record as being suspicious of the alleged benefits of using tax abatements to lure new businesses to town, a tactic that keeps on being promoted even though its record is dubious at best. On the other hand, he did vote to give tax breaks to Amazon and other wealthy corporations that have recently moved to Nashville. Although he has said he’s not going to make Nashville a “sanctuary city,” he has shown no interest in repealing the policies that help make it harder for ICE to operate here. And it’s certainly a big plus that his initial foray into local politics was to join the opposition to creating a “second downtown,”  “Maytown Center,” on the tip of Bell’s Bend.

On the other hand, he became a millionaire by developing Williamson County farmland that he inherited. Maryland Farms and Tractor Supply Company’s corporate headquarters are his legacy, part of the “white flight” to Williamson County that happened after Nashville’s public schools were integrated.

While I’ve never heard him speak on the subject, I suspect that, as a former stock broker, he, like Briley, more or less takes it for granted that capitalism is the only game in town, and always will be. Just as David Briley’s promise faded when he had to deal with the limitations of municipal power, so will Cooper’s promise fade, and soon about twenty percent of our citizens will be debating the mayoral merits of other millionaires. All the while, the climate change/resource depletion time bomb is ticking, and sooner or later it won’t matter how much our mayor and our electorate want to keep things as they have always been, because Nashville will change in ways that most of its citizens never dreamed of. Even I, who ponder our city’s future frequently, can hardly imagine what a post-petroleum, post-collapse, deep-in-the-throes-of-climate-chaos Nashville will be like. However, Cooper does seem to have a reputation as a practical man who is willing and able to understand and accommodate others’ viewpoints and needs. Perhaps he will rise to the challenges Nashville will face in the not-too-distant future.

That’s where Zulfat Suara comes in. She may turn out to be key to our survival as a coherent city. She grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, the largest city in Africa. Lagos is a city of far more extreme inequality than we currently have in America, with 21st century highrises downtown and kerosene-lit, wood-fired shanty towns on its fringes. In those shanty towns, functional illiteracy is endemic. While Ms. Suara does not say a lot about her upbringing, both her own professional status and the fact that her husband is a doctor suggest that she was more of a witness to third world Lagos than a participant in it. Nevertheless, nobody else in Nashville’s government grew up in a third world city. She has experienced a reality that very few Americans can conceive of, a reality that has more in common with our likely future than most of us think.

coming soon to Nashville? and inhabited by formerly middle-class Euro-Americans?

Ms. Surara’s electoral platform was simple: fully fund Metro schools, institute community-based budgeting, a practice that opens the city budget process to, yes, lots of input from the people, and, third, make sure every worker in town is paid a living wage. All that is basic, compassionate, common sense. I would like to think that she will prove capable of maintaining a solid grounding in common sense as challenges to “the American way of life” mount and multiply in the coming decades. Our economy, along with the whole US economy, will collapse. Things we take for granted, like food, electricity, and fuel, not to mention electronic media, will become increasingly iffy. Climate refugees who have lost everything they can’t carry with them will arrive from the southern and eastern coasts of the country, and from its hotter, drier interior, in numbers that will strain our ability to integrate them. Perhaps Ms. Suara will prove to be the woman with the wisdom and compassion to help us gracefully navigate the times that are coming.

music: Judy Mowatt, “Concrete Jungle,” “Black Woman


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