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The Tennessee GOP has a problem with democracy

Their zero-sum politics assault Black, Brown, and poor Tennesseans, but the people are fighting back

State Rep. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) waves to his supporters in the gallery as he delivers his final remarks on the floor of the House chamber as he is expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.SETH HERALD/Getty Images

As House Speaker Cameron Sexton surveyed the room with a scowl on his face last Thursday, his expression was one that’s familiar to many marginalized people. It was a look that’s been dished out by White politicians, planters and others when confronted with a principled yet unrelenting Black leader. Here in Tennessee, we lived through those archival images seen in history books of demonstrators marching for justice or sitting at a segregated lunch counter. We’ve stared into those frustrated, contorted faces while facing Jim Crow head-on. Last week history repeated while two Black millennial lawmakers spoke truth to power about gun violence.

Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) were harangued by Republican legislators alleging that “decorum” was violated. But it’s the long-standing lack of decorum of the GOP that we need to talk about.

Though Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated, we must reckon with this latest and most concerning political development and what it means for the state’s politics overall. The willingness of Tennessee Republicans to subvert democracy and the very people they are elected to represent is a dangerous escalation of a zero-sum politics in which the law and political norms are only applicable to those in power. Jones and Pearson were only reinstated because the legislature could not stop it. But that did not stop them from threatening Davidson and Shelby counties with retribution. In fact, during this legislative session Tennessee Republicans, still smarting over the Metro Nashville Council’s refusal to submit a bid for the 2024 Republican National Committee, cut the council in half and targeted vital revenue streams such as the convention center.

Their responses show a complete disregard for normal political discourse and a lack of willingness to consider political opposition.

The brazenness of this scene harkens back to the dark days of Jim Crow when Black Tennesseans were targeted by White politicians. Using the veneer of “decorum,” Tennessee politicians made clear exactly how little respect they had for the representatives, their constituents and the nearly 40% of Tennesseans who are something other than White. In short, Tennessee Republicans do not view their Democratic colleagues or their constituents as worthy of respect, nor do they view them or their opinions on politicized topics as legitimate.

The hard reality is Tennessee Republicans have always demonized their political opponents and wielded vast amounts of power, often at the expense of Blacks, Latinx and poor persons. Recently it came to light that Tennessee had built up $732 million in funds for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which it largely refused to spend. Just this past fall, over three years since the discovery of the huge cash reserves, there was still some $632.9 million left unspent. The state announced in 2022 it would award grants and take other measures to finally spend the funds. In another noteworthy case, the Tennessee General Assembly announced in 2021 it had underfunded the state’s only public HBCU, Tennessee State University, to the tune of between $151-$544 million over the previous five decades.

Last year CNBC noted Tennessee was one of the worst 10 states in America due to crime and a serious lack of inclusivity. CNBC’s reporting on the social climate in Tennessee reflects misgivings about the political and policy environments in the state. The hyper-business-friendly Tennessee, without a state income tax, gave way to something uglier and darker. The nasty manner in which Republicans responded to the gun control demonstrations reflects vast changes representative of the party in recent decades. Further, their responses show a complete disregard for normal political discourse and a lack of willingness to consider political opposition. The Republican Party in Tennessee was once known for its moderate politics and willingness to project sensibility and wisdom, such as when the late Howard Baker, who practiced a moderate, practical style of politics, emphasized dialogue and collaboration. They were partisan, sometimes engaging in political posturing that made people uncomfortable. But they were able to hold conversations.

Over the past 20 years, though, Tennessee politics changed.

Protesters rally outside the state Capitol in support of Rep. Justin Jones on April 10, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.Seth Herald/Getty

Republicans have increasingly become more disconnected from mainstream American politics. Since President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, Republicans embraced far-right political and policy positions. In recent years these elected members tried to sabotage health care, supported extreme gun rights laws, denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election, signaled their support for former President Donald Trump and argued vociferously against undocumented residents. Many of these Republicans in power now only became active over the past 15 years, as this radical way of thinking surged. The sheer dominance of the Republicans in Tennessee reflects a disturbing national trend of one-party control. Consequently, each political party plays to its respective bases instead of the large majority of Americans in the middle.

Presently, Tennessee Republicans have a supermajority in the legislature. As such, they do not need Democrats in either chamber, which often results in more extreme decisions. In a state with a very complicated racial history, which has been reawakened with startling intensity in the last 20 years, this rise in extremism leaves many concerned.

Yet Tennessee politicians insist on targeting political opponents and engaging in behavior which, if not racist, certainly leads reasonable observers and participants to conclude that bias is a primary motive. The gerrymandered districts in Tennessee, combined with low voter participation, mean they don’t worry about having their power revoked. After all, the entire country watched in real time as the House of Representatives engaged in embarrassing and ridiculous behavior when expelling Jones and Pearson.

These people were elected to represent their districts and advocate for policies that will improve their lives. The actions of the Republican supermajority were an attempt to dismiss their concerns. What this event represents, in part because of the state’s reputation as the birthplace of the KKK and its history with slavery, is how the vestiges of slavery and racism continue to impact our politics.

Daryl A. Carter is associate dean, director of Black American Studies, and professor of history at East Tennessee State University.