Commentary

An undemocratic circus act

The Tennessee General Assembly has the opportunity in a special session to give Americans a better view of Tennessee. But will it?

August 16, 2023 5:59 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photograph: John Partipilo)

“Is Tennessee a Democracy?” read the headline in the July 18 online edition of The Atlantic, a magazine that covers topics including politics, health, culture and technology. 

The story, written by Anne Applebaum — who has written extensively about the history of Communism, authoritarian oppression and about disinformation and propaganda internationally — didn’t break new ground for Tennesseans who are tuned into how state government has evolved over the last decade. 

But Applebaum presented to a national audience our restrictive voting laws and the rise of “constitutional conservatives” in Sumner County. She wrote about how the Republican supermajority in the legislature is running amok, batting aside those who disagree with their views — the culmination of which came in April, when House Republicans voted to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville, both of whom are Black. 

The question is a good one to consider this week, as we prepare for a special legislative session ostensibly called in response to the March shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School that left six people dead. 

In one of the Lookout’s daily newsletters, I linked to Applebaum’s piece and asked for feedback from readers, receiving, in return, responses from more than two dozen. Some of those responding were Tennessee natives and some longtime residents, while others were more recent transplants. Most told me that while they were happy to share their opinions, they feared reprisal from their neighbors were their names to be made public. 

I still believe that Tennessee is much more diverse politically than elections portray, but it is now so hard to even have a conversation about different opinions, much less find diverse candidates or ever get them elected, it's hard not to feel hopeless.

– A longtime Tennessean, in a note to the Lookout

Rarely does the Lookout quote sources anonymously, but several of the responses were so thoughtful, I agreed: I didn’t think I’d see a time when Tennesseans would feel threatened by neighbors for their political views, but it’s a fair worry. In April, unknown shooters targeted the Williamson County home of Justin Kanew, who operates the progressive site Tennessee Holler, while the Kanew family was asleep. 

And yet, one doesn’t have to be as outspoken as Kanew to worry about their safety. One reader wrote that she fears getting shot for her beliefs, calling Tennessee an autocracy:  “I have lived in Tennessee for most of my 65 years and have always been active in politics, so I remember when Tennessee was an actual democracy. 

“It’s certainly never been a Democratic stronghold, but unlike now, one didn’t feel that the whole system was rigged against you. One could believe that their activism and involvement in politics could move the needle. No more. I still believe that Tennessee is much more diverse politically than elections portray, but it is now so hard to even have a conversation about different opinions, much less find diverse candidates or ever get them elected, it’s hard not to feel hopeless.”

A newcomer who moved to East Tennessee earlier this year wrote: 

“I knew that Tennessee was a red state, but I am amazed at the level of authoritarianism that exists at the state level. I am amazed that the decisions at the state legislature are, according to polls, not in keeping with the wishes of the people. Not only do I realize it, but several friends who live in the midwest emailed me the Applebaum (article) that indicates the rest of the country is recognizing the leadership of Christian nationalism and right wing autocracy in the administration of the legal and political system here in Tennessee.” 

“I hope that the people of this state wake up and realize what is happening and, even with the adverse effects of gerrymandering, gain some spirit and recognize the path on which our individual liberties are being threatened by the current situation.”

I knew that Tennessee was a red state, but I am amazed at the level of authoritarianism that exists at the state level. I am amazed that the decisions at the state legislature are, according to polls, not in keeping with the wishes of the people.

– A Tennessee newcomer, writing to the Lookout

And a third reader, whose family roots date back to the founding of Nashville, says Tennessee appears to be retreating into the past. 

(Tennessee’s) political leadership has devolved from a ‘can do’ bipartisanship to a circus act playing to an enthusiastic following of unreconstructed Confederates. It is a group whose fear of losing white privilege as society becomes more pluralistic has led to blind loyalty to a traitorous ex-President.”

“Republican leadership in Tennessee has become a country club for a group who has deceived itself into believing they are saints doing God’s work. They are nothing more than self-serving opportunists using their perverted form of Christianity to rationalize their repression of anything that runs counter to their narrative, to anything that threatens their ruthless hold on power.”

The woman continued: “In answer to Ms. Applebaum’s question, Tennessee is not a democracy or even a representative republic. It is becoming a fascist state run by party hacks who use their phony brand of religion to justify their self-interest. This is something Barry Goldwater predicted for the Republican party decades ago.”

Not every Tennessean or even every Lookout reader believes our state is a fallen democracy, but never have I heard this much concern from neighbors, friends in other states and readers about the direction of Tennessee. 

In answer to Ms. Applebaum's question, Tennessee is not a democracy or even a representative republic. It is becoming a fascist state run by party hacks who use their phony brand of religion to justify their self-interest.

– Lifelong Tennessean, with family roots dating to the establishment of Nashville

In a few days, Tennessee’s lawmakers will convene for a second time this year. The first time, they sped to criminalize drag shows and gender-affirming care for minors, banning the latter even with parental consent. They took up a bill to give death row prisoners “options” for their executions, including firing squad. Republican legislators voted to strip authority from Metro Nashville, taking over boards and commissions and cutting the Metro Council in half — that last effort managed to get a reprieve until 2027. 

Now, our legislators — particularly Republican ones, who have been at the root of most of the harmful legislation of the past few years — have a golden opportunity for redemption by passing meaningful legislation to address our wave of gun violence. 

I’m skeptical the General Assembly will pass any bills of import to ease the concerns of Tennesseans worried they or their children will get shot. But maybe, at least, we can get through the session with a shred of dignity, without national TV cameras camped out, without drawing more comparisons to authoritarian states — without, to use the words of a reader, looking like a circus act.



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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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