Destination 2017: Nashville

It’s strange to think about it now, after all that’s happened since last November, but one of the most hotly debated social issues of 2016 involved bathrooms—specifically, which people could use which bathrooms. That’s largely because in March 2016 North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The bill, which also legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians, became best known for its specific targeting of transgender people, who wanted to use the public bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

What Governor McCrory and the Republican-controlled state legislature didn’t expect, didn’t think about or just didn’t give a damn about—before, anyway—was the backlash. The NBA quickly and defiantly moved its All-Star Game to New Orleans. The NCAA rescheduled March Madness games into other states. College football’s ACC relocated its championship game. PayPal abandoned plans to expand a service center in Charlotte, an estimated $2.66 billion economic hit to the state. (Poor Charlotte—it’s probably the bluest city in North Carolina, and it was Charlotte’s law protecting gays and lesbians that the legislature overturned.) The Associated Press estimated—conservatively—that, over 12 years, the bathroom bill would cost North Carolina $3.76 billion. Six months later McCrory lost his bid for reelection in a state that Donald Trump won by four points, making him the first North Carolina governor to lose a reelection bid—ever. And North Carolina furthered a growing reputation as a state so politically dysfunctional that its legislators would rather cost North Carolina billions than let Caitlyn Jenner sit down to pee in a women’s bathroom.

Businesspeople and politicians nationwide watched the North Carolina controversy closely, many with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God mentality—there were other bathroom bills percolating in numerous state legislatures. Some were the work of right-wing activist groups from outside the states in which they were promoting the legislation, and some of them were more organic. Why the sudden concern with potty trading? The simplest answer is that it is a microcosm of a larger fight about political and social power. These and related pieces of socially conservative legislation were a way for conservative legislators to take aim at cities whose values they disliked—even if it meant hurting the states depending on the cities.

At the moment, almost 70 of the biggest 100 U.S. cities have Democratic mayors; Republicans control a similar percentage of governorships and statehouses, as well as the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. So Republicans see their statewide legislative power as a way to suppress Democratic ideas and policies. One of the lesser-known features of North Carolina’s bathroom bill, for example, was a provision that forbade its cities from raising their minimum wages to a level higher than the state’s.

But for conservatives, there’s an awkward—and consequently, for the most part unacknowledged—reality here: Cities are the economic engine of this country. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, 90 percent of America’s gross domestic product comes from metro regions. The 23 biggest metro areas alone account for half the country’s GDP. And whether it comes to immigration, innovation, socialization or globalization, cities are driving more and faster change than rural areas, which leaves rural voters feeling left out.

Scroll to Top