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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Restless Volunteers

Tennessee was one of America’s original frontier states, full of turbulent Scotch-Irish who did not easily plant roots. The state continued to contribute heavily to the westward migration of Americans, symbolized, of course, by the event that gave the Volunteer State its name: the presence of a large Tennessee element at the Alamo.
After a long history of Tennesseans moving west, all the way to California (many “Okies” had roots in Tennessee), in the mid-to-late twentieth century the state contributed heavily to the biracial migration of southerners to the auto plants and other high-wage opportunities of the Midwest. Bobby Bare’s great country song “Detroit City” is an enduring testament to this migration.
Today Tennessee likes to think of itself as a major magnet for the relocation of Yankees, particularly those who don’t like paying income taxes. But as we saw just yesterday, the restless Volunteer tradition lives on.
The young, smack-talking head coach of the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team, Lane Kiffin, abruptly split for the (west) coast and the glamor program at the University of Southern California, after just one year of making many southern enemies, taking with him his highly paid coaching staff and probably a few Tennessee recruits.
The very same day, former Tennessee Congressman (and 2006 Democratic Senate candidate) Harold Ford, Jr., was making big waves in New York as a putative primary challenger to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Now I don’t want to push the analogy too far. Kiffin’s departure, timed to wreak maximum damage on Big Orange football prospects, sparked an actual riot in Knoxville. I don’t think any mattresses were burned when Harold Ford quietly decamped from Memphis to New York a while back. Moreover, Ford is an authentic Tennessee native, while Kiffin spent a year there between extended stints in California. And without a doubt, college football is a much bigger deal than politics in Tennessee, as in other southern states.
Still, you have to consider both developments a contribution to Tennessee’s longstanding tradition of itchy feet. And that’s a tough legacy to enjoy.

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