Will the influx of blue state refugees into the heartland ruin the country or save it?
American Refugees: The Untold Story of the Mass Exodus from Blue States to Red States, Roger L. Simon, Encounter Books, 232 pages
America is badly divided. Urban and coastal progressives openly loathe traditional Americans living in rural areas and “flyover country,” Hillary’s “deplorables,” and the scorn is reciprocated. At the same time, an exodus is under way from blue states as many residents flee high-tax, crime-ridden cities plagued by homeless encampments, open-air drug dens, and toxic woke policies, seeking refuge in red states such as Texas, Florida, and Tennessee. In sheer numbers, California generates the greatest volume of these domestic transplants, but the growing body of states losing residents also includes Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Minnesota, and more states seem determined to join this ignominious list.
The exodus began at the dawn of the 21st century and accelerated in 2020 due to draconian Covid restrictions, including school shutdowns, and civil unrest in many cities unleashed by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A summer of rioting, looting, and arson revealed that the veneer of civilization is deceptively thin, as was the resolve of elected officials in blue states to enforce the rule of law.
As blue states continue to deteriorate, the exodus will grow. Roger L. Simon, himself an expat from California (“a madhouse of the woke”) now living in Nashville, has written a book, American Refugees, that he describes as “a kind of Fodor’s guide” for blue-state conservatives tempted to vote with their feet. Simon is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter who started out as a self-described “conventional liberal” and now serves as editor-at-large of the conservative Epoch Times. He provides an engaging first-person account of his unlikely odyssey.
The big question—as yet unanswered—is what effect this internal migration will have on our national politics. Will the refugees from blue states discover their love of freedom and traditional values or, in Simon’s words, “pollute red states with their indelible left-wing ideology”? Simon makes some contrarian—but, in my judgment, accurate—observations.
In red states, newcomers from California are often met with the same reception one would accord an escapee from a leper colony. In small towns and less populated counties, red state natives are instinctively wary of, if not hostile to, the wave of equity-rich “outsiders” who bid up home prices with all-cash offers. The common assumption is that blue staters have something akin to cooties and will infect the body politic in the host state with a contagious liberal virus. This sentiment is reflected in a 2021 headline in the Federalist: “Leftists Are Colonizing Red Towns Like Mine, And Local Republicans Are Clueless” (the second part is more apt than the first).
Simon takes the opposite view. He focuses on Tennessee, and in particular his current stomping grounds, the fast-growing metropolis of Nashville, where he moved in 2018 (a year before my own arrival). Based on his interactions with blue state refugees, Simon finds that, in many cases, the transplants are more conservative and certainly more engaged than the natives, who tolerate establishment-oriented politicians in their states. Simon pulls no punches in his evisceration of the “Republican-in-name-only” political culture in many red states—Tennessee included. Complacent natives, not yet having experienced the disorienting regime change of wokeness, are surprisingly content with the RINO status quo.
Simon will earn few friends in establishment circles when he points out that blue state refugees are often disappointed upon their arrival in red states to find that the conservative nirvana is not all they hoped it would be. Yes, Tennessee has low taxes, voted for President Trump by a wide margin in both 2016 and 2020, and, outside of the handful of large cities, is a one-party red state. But Tennessee is hardly a hotbed of Tea Party–style conservatism. Transplants discover that the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but there are still weeds. Elected officials typically constitute an “old guard” devoted to servicing the chamber of commerce; grassroots activism is not the norm; conservative groups are few and largely ineffective, without any sense of urgency.
For example, Simon describes Tennessee’s state and county GOP organizations as “somewhere between useless and incompetent.” Voter turnout is pathetically low. Tennessee is an open primary state, and compared to Texas or Florida the Tennessee Republican Party is weak and poorly organized. “For some time,” Simon accurately notes, “local party organizations have acted as ineffective social clubs, headed by what seem like deliberately incompetent leaders.”
Newly arrived transplants, acutely aware of the peril posed by leftist policies, often find themselves acting like Paul Revere, warning the cliquish locals of the dangers of passivity and complacency. Far from posing a threat to red states, refugees from blue states, Simon posits, are in fact “a calvary come to rescue the red states from themselves.”
Simon acknowledges that many red state natives are offended by this point of view, resenting “know-it-all newcomers trying to reinvent the wheel.” But he illustrates his thesis with a roll call of Volunteer State activists who moved to Tennessee from elsewhere: Matt Walsh and the rest of the Daily Wire crew; election integrity advocate Kathy Harms; right-leaning broadcaster (Tennessee Star Report) and journalist Michael Patrick Leahy; founder of the Tennessee Conservative website Brandon Lewis; co-founder of The Federalist Sean Davis; and “insurgent” founder of Tennessee Stands Gary Humble.
The prominent exception is influential blogger and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn “InstaPundit” Reynolds, a native Tennessean to whom Simon dedicates his book.
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Simon acknowledges that not all transplants from blue states are the same—and neither are all red states identical. He distinguishes between “political refugees” and people who relocate for other reasons: cheaper housing, a better job, proximity to family, or a slight change of climate or scenery. Those in the “other” category are less likely to leave their blue state political and cultural beliefs behind. For example, so many Californians relocated to Austin, Texas, in order to work in Big Tech that they turned the Capital City into a demographic replica of Silicon Valley. Austin has effectively become a province of California and votes accordingly. However, this has not been the case in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis. Tennessee has little in common with Austin (although Nashville hipsters have aspirations in that regard).
Can a fedora-wearing, (converted) conservative Jewish writer from New York by way of Hollywood find contentment in Tennessee? It would be an ironic reversal of The Beverly Hillbillies. Simon assures the reader that the answer is yes, so long as he can play tennis several times a week, enjoy fine dining, and find congenial companions with whom to socialize—all of which are available in Nashville. Although he claims that he will “never be a real redneck,” Simon professes to be “happier than I have ever been in Tennessee.” (I concur.)
Red states should embrace freedom-loving blue state refugees, whether they are “real rednecks” or not. In these tumultuous times, patriots must unite. If America is to be saved, the battle will be fought at the local level, and it is here that the blue state refugees and red state natives must learn to work together as allies.