The Tennessee state legislature goes off the rails

The old saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was provided another example in the Tennessee state legislature where Republicans have a supermajority that enables them to do pretty much anything they want. Recently they used that power to vote to expel two young black members of the legislature because of their calls for gun reforms following yet another mass shooting in the US, this one resulting in the deaths of three students and three staff members at a Christian school in Nashville. This expulsion has made national news and the two expelled members have become national figures.

Sue Halpern gave the background to this action.

On March 30th, three Democratic members—Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson—now known as the Tennessee Three, stepped into the well of the chamber without being formally recognized and led the student protesters sitting in the gallery in the chant “No action, no peace,” demanding that lawmakers pass gun-reform legislation. Jones and Pearson used a megaphone. On April 6th, their Republican colleagues voted to expel both members for having violated the decorum of the chamber. When Johnson was asked why they, and not she, had been kicked out, she was blunt, saying, “It might have to do with the color of our skin.”

This article reports on the backlash to the expulsions, including the fact that the constituencies represented by the expelled members acted quickly to send them back into the legislature as interim members until elections are held in their districts.

Two Black Tennessee lawmakers are back in the state House, barely a week after Republicans expelled them. To say the expulsions backfired is a drastic understatement. Almost no one outside their districts knew who Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and their colleague Gloria Johnson were before Republicans used their super-majority to punish them. Now they’re symbols not only of their gun-control cause, but of the increasingly aggressive anti-democratic impulses of a GOP teetering into authoritarianism.

What were those Tennessee Republicans thinking? Well… listen for yourself. You’ll hear elected officials who are fully signed onto the idea that they’re at war with their political opponents, and that the very survival of the republic is at stake. Once that’s your mindset, many things beyond expelling protesting colleagues can be justified.

Republicans are using their majorities to go way beyond partisan policy fights like abortion and guns. They’re turfing the self-rule of cities populated with Black and brown people, cracking down on prosecutors who might pursue accountability they don’t like, and, of course, banning books. Back in Washington, the GOP House majority uses its power to interfere in a local criminal investigation threatening the leader of the GOP, who also tried to steal the last presidential election. They’re also working hard to undermine anyone who investigates him for it.  

So in the states, the contemporary GOP is using its power to assault democratic rights and silence dissent. In Congress, it’s using it to undermine the rule of law and accountability. And the leader, Donald Trump, casts it all as an apocalyptic “final battle” for America. Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives have gotten the memo.

We’ll see if the Tennessee Three’s new fame translates into real galvanizing politics for Democrats and democratic-minded independents and Republicans. There are signs average voters are not interested in being part of the GOP’s authoritarian lurch. And there are signs Dems are finding their feet in fighting against anti-democratic demagoguery. But the stakes involved are way more interesting, and vital, than any horse-race polling will be.

In response to the two Black legislators being quickly re-appointed, the Republican majority has threatened to withhold funds from their districts. But even within their caucus, there is unease that they may have gone to far and recordings secretly made of heated discussions within their caucus reveal how the allegations that they had racist motives for their actions have clearly stung. Some of them speak in apocalyptic terms about what they are engaged in, a sign of how extremist rhetoric has sunk deep into the party’s psyche.

This extreme action did not sit well even with people who may be sympathetic with Republican policies in general. David Dark, a progressive evangelical and an assistant professor of religion and the arts at Belmont University, a private Christian institution in Nashville, told Halpern: “A friend messaged me to say that Tennessee is going off the rails. No, I say a select number of white people in Tennessee are going off the rails loudly and publicly. Millions of others are waking up. Just watch. We live in hope.”

Let us not forget that this is not the only sign of the insanity gripping some members of the Republican party. Watch some members warn of the dangers posed by schools supposedly catering to the needs of ‘furries’ (people who allegedly like to dress up like cats and other animals) by providing them with litter boxes. This has not happened anywhere but these people are so gripped by their paranoid fantasies that they believe anything that feeds those delusions, however fact-free and implausible they may be.

I would hope that Dark is correct in his belief that more and more people, even in deep red states like Tennessee, are waking up to the dangers of this kind of thinking. One small indicator is that a few days ago Bill Lee, the Republican governor of Tennessee, urged the estate legislature to pass some gun control measures. He was not too specific other than calling for the strengthening the state’s gun background checks but any effort to slow down access to guns has been portrayed by Republicans as some horrendous infringement on fundamental rights, so this is not an insignificant shift, even if the legislature ignores his call.

More typical among Republicans is to move to make guns as freely available as possible. For example, we see Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, boast about how her two-year old grandchild has several guns. So no doubt that child will be able to defend herself from any attack by another armed child in the playground. The only way to stop a bad toddler with a gun is a good toddler with a gun.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    The Grossly Obscene Party is making it more likely with each passing day that one of their leaders is going to lose a child or grandchild to gun violence. When it happens, will that person finally see the wisdom of limiting guns or will they count it as just part of the cost of “freedom”?

    Also, with literally every person in Florida essentially forced to carry a concealed gun, what will shopping become? Every trip to buy milk involves a Mexican standoff between the store clerk and the customers? Even the Wild West was never this bad.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Aside: these people aren’t “off the rails”. They’re very much on the rails they’ve been laying for years. As far as i know they’ve not quite yet got round to building the ovens at the end of the rails, but they will…

  3. Dunc says

    Now they’re symbols not only of their gun-control cause, but of the increasingly aggressive anti-democratic impulses of a GOP teetering into authoritarianism.

    “Teetering into”? Charging headlong, more like…

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