BY Jim Henson and Joshua Blank | Guest columnists
Amazon’s choice of a location for its second headquarters has led to much eye-of-the-beholder appraisal of the relative positives and negatives of the 20 cities on the most recent “short list” released by Amazon. Among the several factors Amazon is weighing that is frequently cited as a black mark against the two remaining Texas candidates, Austin and Dallas, is the conservative social and political climate of the state. As the Boston Globe put it: “A string of socially-conservative state laws could turn off a company that wants a good ‘cultural fit’ for its employees.”
This past year state politics certainly has presented several examples of a political climate at odds with the progressive cultural orientation of one of the leading tech companies on the planet, even if not all of the proposals became laws. The failed (but certain to return in some guise) Bathroom Bill — championed most prominently by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican — is certainly on the top of people’s minds. But this is only the most nationally recognizable legislation among a list including draconian state-level immigration bills passed in 2017, as well as laws aimed at limiting abortion and protecting the religious freedom of individuals against laws intended to prevent discrimination, among others.
Yet these state-level considerations of the Texas political climate miss the stark differences between state governance and the political climate in the state’s economically and dynamic cities. It also misses the fact that several of the other Amazon candidates are in states where the broader political climate is certainly less cosmopolitan and progressive than the cities themselves. North Carolina, for example, where Raleigh and the “emerald triangle” have made the Amazon cut, was the first to make headlines with efforts to regulate bathroom access based on birth gender.
Eight out of the remaining 20 candidates are cities found, broadly speaking, in states fairly thought of as dominated by conservative politics: Austin; Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee and Indianapolis, Indiana. Interestingly, in CNBC’s graded analysis of the final 20, these eight cities received the six highest grades based on factors like population, stability, talent and location. So, if Amazon is going to cull its final list by cutting cities based on the sins of their more conservative state governments, Amazon will have to remove most of its top contenders before they even begin to consider the true finalists in earnest.
But another way of thinking about the role of political and social climate may be to suggest that the realities of modern cultural politics mean that we — and maybe even Amazon — are thinking about political climate all wrong. Despite the vagaries of state politics, the cities that have made the list are to one degree or another not only economically dynamic and offer some of the factors of production that Amazon seeks, they are also to varying degrees defined by a “cultural fit” — in some cases, in defiance of dominant cultural currents in their states. In an October 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, for example, urban Texans as a group were 14 percentage points less likely to think it is important for the Legislature to regulate transgender people’s access to bathrooms than were rural Texans.
So perhaps Amazon might look not only to the economic fundamentals, but also may think about where the company and its own putative culture might actually add to the cultural and political force of its new home.
Particularly in the medium-size cities on this list, Amazon could potentially boost the political weight of urban cosmopolitanism in the face of the political alliances between ever-shrinking rural areas and the exurbs. It is the fruit of these alliances that make these states appear inhospitable, but also make these states’ politics look like the cultural equivalents of brick and mortar.
The presence of Amazon, its workforce and its resources could play at least a small part in putting the same kind of pressure on those conservative alliances that they put on Borders and Barnes & Noble. Although it seems unlikely that Amazon’s leadership would base its decision wholly on such considerations, it also seems unlikely that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post was purely an economic decision.