In American politics there is a long tradition of Washington politicians heaping scorn on Washington. From Estes Kevfauver’s coonskin cap to Fred Thompson’s red truck, our most ambitious politicians have consistently embraced the symbols of ordinary America in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the “out-of-touch,” “insular,” “loafer-wearing,” “self-important,” “log-rolling,” “pork-barreling,” “Potomac-fevered,” “insider,” “career politicians” who have “spent too much time in Washington.”
Meanwhile, even if voters have gleefully swallowed this hyperbole from the hustings, it has always brought sniffs of derision from Washington’s chattering class of intellectuals. Every time they hear a politician praising Peoria for its common sense, reporters and pundits have always cringed in unison.
Until now, that is. Over the past few years, a new strain of populism has infected the ranks of what was once America’s most cynical class. In the past, journalists, policy analysts, and budget economists viewed the land that lay beyond the Virginia suburbs as a vast intellectual wasteland, populated by corrupt local pols, farmers, book-burning religious fanatics, and white men who went to stock-car races every weekend.
If policy studies were conducted, they were concerned entirely with the Federal Regulatory Code. But now a new fascination with local political life beyond the Beltway has suddenly become fashionable. What was once dismissed as a form of intellectual slumming is now regarded as serious policy field work.
Only in this context does the latest issue of The American Enterprise, devoted almost entirely to life in Nashville, make sense. Published in Washington, D.C., by a conservative-leaning think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, The American Enterprise has emerged as a trailblazer for a new type of Washington-based policy journalism that champions life outside of Washington.
In late December the magazine’s editor, Karl Zinsmeister, and nine of his subordinate editors and writers spent a week in Nashville. After scouring maps and census reports, they had decided that Nashville represents the typical boomtown of the 1990s, a place, Zinsmeister writes, “where good and serious and amazingly productive things are accomplished every day without much national acclaim.”
The result of the research fills more than a dozen articles in the latest issue of The American Enterprise, its cover displaying a shiny picture of Nashville’s skyline at night. The table of contents is somewhat predictable but wide-ranging. There are articles on country music, the city’s education system, the Saturn and Nissan plants, Christian book publishing, the conflicts between growth and careful planning, and the state’s vibrant political culture. The editors have also included a number of charming shorter pieces on Oprah Winfrey’s father, the arrival of the Oilers, and the difference between L.A. and Nashville.
While there have been no shortage of music writers who have come to Nashville to “discover” the culture of Music City, this surely represents the first time a national public policy journal has devoted so much space to the city. Many local readers will be flattered by the attention, even if many of the articles cover familiar territory. Bookstar, one of the few local stores to carry the magazine, has already sold out of copies.
The curiosity among Nashvillians is understandable. But will anybody outside Nashville want to read Amercan Enterprise’s analysis of Nashville? More specifically, will anybody in the rarefied, Washington policy community that makes up the primary audience of The American Enterprise care to read about the Metro Historical Commission or Phil Bredesen’s core curriculum program for Metro public schools?
Surprisingly, the answer might be yes. Since Richard Nixon’s 1969 speech on the “New Federalism” (“...it is time for a new Federalism in which power, funds, and responsibility will flow from Washington to the states and the people...”), Republican policy advocates, and some of their Democratic colleagues, have been urging that local communities be used as the laboratories of democracy. Now it appears that some people are taking that rhetoric seriously.
Indeed, the Nashville issue of The American Enterprise reveals far more about the culture of Washington’s policy elites than it does about Nashville. As the era of big government is slowly dismantled, the policy analysts who once whiled away their hours debating the expansion of Medicaid or the size of the HUD budget have to look to the provinces for new ideas. And as Clinton and Gingrich gradually blur the lines between left and right, once-fiery debates over vital national issues have fizzled. These days, any subject worth discussing in Washington is quickly dispatched to a bipartisan study panel or a special prosecutor. There are no big issues on the table anymore.
No wonder the policy wonks have come knocking on Nashville’s door.
What The American Enterprise reports about Nashville will certainly cause the city fathers to puff out their chests with pride. Zinsmeister describes the city as “dynamic and rippling with energy.” An article on Nashville’s emergence as a boomtown praises the city’s entrepreneurial culture, its openness, and its willingness to take risks. The diversity and tolerance of Nashville’s religious life earns applause from another writer. Many of the most prominent state politicians are depicted in a generous and favorable light.
Gov. Don Sundquist, often overshadowed in the national press by his Republican colleagues in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, or California, earns kudos from The American Enterprise as a “quiet conservative” whose ambitious plans to reduce the size of government deserve more attention.
Good news is no news
If none of this sounds particularly newsworthy, that is because it is not. Nashville, like so many other cities, thrives because the national economy is strong, because there has been a steady influx of new, prosperous immigrants from the Northeast and California, and because its citizens are too busy to spend time fighting with one another. Reading the latest issue of The American Enterprise, one can’t help but feel that nothing extraordinary is going on in Nashvillethat this is simply how a normal, healthy city works.
Yet that is the point the editors of the magazine want to make. While policy analysts in earlier decades loved to uncover an overlooked example of social policy gone righta clean, integrated housing project in Chicago, a crime-free neighborhood in Charlestonthe new anti-Washington policy crowd prefers to celebrate the lackluster, quotidian features of life in the United States. They admire Nashville precisely because its political, economic, and social life seem free of the hype and spin that so often accompany every community promoted as a model for the nation.
On Page 72 of the magazine, the editors even reprint “The Glory of the Ordinary,” a sermon delivered by Rev. Stan Mitchell at Christ Church on Old Hickory Boulevard. Few will be surprised that the same issue touting the simple virtues of Nashville also includes an article arguing that Saturday Evening Post artist Norman Rockwell belongs in the pantheon of “realist masters.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with being ordinary. But The American Enterprise’s celebration of Middle America for its plainness suggests that the policy class in Washington may be lowering its aspirations. While no one seriously argues that we should return to the vaulting ambitions of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” it may prove much harder to generate passionate interest in “the Ordinary Society.” School board disputes, zoning fights, and local elections only rarely have important national implications.
So while it is nice to have outsiders confirm that Nashville is a wonderful place to live and work, it is safe to assume that legions of America’s social scientists and policy analysts won’t be invading anytime soon.
Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington-based public policy communications firm. He lives in Nashville.
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