July 26, 2021 6:00am

The Divide Deepens

Rural Repubs and Urban Dems argue vaccination in latest demonstration of division

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

Nashville Power Poll members threw the kitchen sink (and the rest of the kitchen for that matter) at state officials in the most recent Power Poll regarding vaccinations for Tennessee adolescents.

Some of this sentiment is unsurprising—we are a majority Democratic city. Democrats are mostly pro-vax. Anti-vaxxers tend to be more Republican. But the level of displeasure expressed in this recent COVID survey in Nashville almost certainly means some Republicans are upset at their own party's position.

Nine out of 10 Power Poll members disagreed with the state Health Department's decision to halt outreach to adolescents. About the same number think that our Metro Health Department should continue its own adolescent outreach. When asked what Power Poll members would do if they were a top executive at any of the new companies locating here, a majority said they would publicly voice their concerns and consider picking up the phone to blow off some steam at their elected officials.

In one of the most personal Power Poll questions ever asked, 99.1% of respondents said they had been vaccinated, 0.6% said they had not been, and 0.3% chose not to answer the question.

Here are the specific questions and answers in this July Power Poll:

QUESTION: The Tennessee Health Department last week halted vaccination outreach for adolescents, a move that was met with national media attention, much of it negative. As well, the state's top vaccine official was fired after Republicans criticized her efforts to vaccinate Tennessee youth. Do you agree with the state Health Department's decision to halt vaccination outreach for adolescents?

Yes: 5.9%

No: 90.0%

Don't know: 4.1%

QUESTION: Should the Metro Health Department continue its own outreach:

Yes: 91.8%

No: 4.7%

Don't know: 3.5%

QUESTION: Let's say you're a top executive at Oracle, Amazon, AllianceBernstein, or any of the other companies locating here. Which of the following best expresses your thoughts?

This was a wise move by Tennessee's leaders. We should not tell people how to live their lives: 1.8%

I am agnostic about this. My company made a dollars-and-cents decision about moving to Nashville. It was not a decision based on how the state deals with the virus or other public policy: 10.7%

This is not smart policy—the economy won't thrive until we reach higher vaccination levels. I'm not going to comment publicly and we're committed to Nashville but the Republicans on Capitol Hill are not acting wisely: 33.2%

This is awful. It is bad policy. If asked, I will publicly say our company is opposed to this development. I may contact state officials and encourage them to address the health crisis differently: 50.7%

None of the above: 3.6%

QUESTION: Have you been vaccinated?

Yes: 99.1%

No: 0.6%

Don't want to answer: 0.3%

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll. However, it is a succinct expression of the thoughts and opinions of those who run Nashville regarding important local issues. Poll members include all of the city's publicly elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels. It includes numerous CEO's and other important business figures from the private sector. And it includes numerous non-profit heads, donors, activists, educators, and more. This Power Poll was emailed to 603 members. 340 responded for a response rate of 56.38%.


I'll be honest—little can be said that is original here.

In Tennessee, rural Republicans and urban Democrats are far, far apart, even, as last week demonstrated, in matters that are life-and-death important. The most recent demonstration of our polarization is this vaccination of adolescents. Getting to the "why" of our polarization over this issue, and all the rest, is damn difficult. We are really broken down here.

But let me offer up some brief context about last week and what went down and follow that up with some remarks about Nashville's character.

As originally reported in The Tennessean, the Tennessee Department of Health last week halted all adolescent vaccine outreach, not just for COVID but all diseases actually. That step was taken under pressure from Republican state lawmakers, which The Tennessean knew because it had gotten its hands on agency emails and an internal report. (Congratulations to The Tennessean, still cranking it out as best it can, and its reporter Brett Kelman.)

At the same time as this rather dramatic turn in health care policy was taking place, related stories were breaking. First, rates of COVID infections were climbing, particularly among those not vaccinated, which many health care experts were finding worrisome. Secondly, the Health Department fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the doctor overseeing the state's vaccine program. She did not go quietly and wrote a long piece in The Tennessean that blamed her firing on Republican legislators who believed the state to be meddling in decisions that should be left to parents and their children. She blamed legislators for buying into anti-vaccine propaganda in general as well.

More good reporting legwork (by Tennessee Lookout) then emerged when the publication made an open records request and obtained her firing letter, which painted a profile of a renegade doctor run astray. Actually, as Tennessee Lookout pointed out, all available information noted otherwise. Additionally, The Tennessee Journal chimed in that Fiscus' firing letter had been "blessed" by the office of Gov. Bill Lee. That meant Republicans both in the governor's office and the Legislature bore responsibility in trying to stop this vaccination outreach to kids AND getting rid of the vaccine director who was trying to make that happen.

Within state lines, the story played out on A1 in Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga. Nationally, a feeding frenzy ensued, with sharp darts thrown our way by all the Twitter-happy media big-shots looking for the next idiot to pick on. Not a few remarked that we seemed to have hit the rewind button and were living in the time of the Scopes trial.

It would have been difficult to find a recent local issue when the divide between educated, urban, bourgeois Democrats and rural, less educated, more white Republicans was more stark. Naturally, Republicans won.

And just as naturally, Nashville Power Poll members overwhelmingly think the Republicans are crazy on this issue.


I was speaking with one of the quite powerful members of Power Poll last week and when asked to identify the single greatest issue/problem in the city at this point in time, he said it was the threat to the city's character as so many large businesses relocate here. One begins with the character of Nashville we all know and understand and love it—business-friendly, honest, tolerant, gracious, supportive, nurturing, cohesive, and one could go on and on. (True, we're all engaged in some highly self-critical navel-gazing with regard to issues of race and equity, but relatively speaking, I think the overwhelming majority of Power Poll members understand the special ability of our city to work and play well together historically.)

Now, in comes Amazon. In comes Oracle. In comes AllianceBernstein. In come more and more of these colossal outsiders, to the point that continued growth is almost pre-destined. Is the extant Nashville character strong enough to mold the new arrivals in its own likeness and place them in our cultural, political, and characterological comfort zones? Or do these massive economic superpowers overwhelm the polite and dainty ethos in which we've all been going about our lives in relative peace and tranquility for so long? And when this happens do we wake up and discover that the transplants really don't care about shared sense of place, community, assumed values and understandings, and by extension do they convince us none of us old-timers should care either?

I bring this up, because one of the worst jobs on the planet last week had to be filled by Bobby Rolfe, the state official charged with recruiting businesses to Tennessee. Suddenly, he was having to sell some of the brightest private sector minds in the nation on relocating to a state where we don't want kids to be inoculated against polio. This divide between the economic superpower that Nashville is becoming and the surrounding counties that have been left behind in the global economic transition is so vivid and ugly. And it's the counties left behind that hold the political cards.

But back to Nashville. Let's say we are successful in engaging the newcomers in a great community lovefest, with Amazon employees jumping up and down at Leadership Nashville retreats and Oracle execs volunteering for United Way and everyone rooting for the Titans and we're all eating hot chicken. If this blend of old and new works, then this divisive Republican-Democratic stuff may lessen. You know why? Because all it would take would be one phone call from Jeffrey Bezos to Bill Lee and you know what? I betcha we'd have us some kids getting inoculated again.

Nashville has some serious work to do. It's come-together time.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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