It (probably) can’t happen here

Watching electoral wins elsewhere through a chain link fence called Tennessee.

November 13, 2023 6:00 am
The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Election day 2023 turned out to be a euphoric one for Democrats who have lately been spending way too much time marinating in the sour juices of grandpa-trails-an-unhinged-fascist polling. Voters in quite red Ohio said yes they would like to be able to smoke a joint and get an abortion. Voters in very red Kentucky preferred a second term for a popular blue governor over a Trump-endorsed right-wing crusader. And voters in purple Virginia, flipping the state house from red to blue, threw a pitcher of ice water in the hot face of GOP governor Glenn Youngkin’s expansive national ambition. 

“I’m a little disappointed,” a resolutely chipper Youngkin understated in a postmortem news conference, during which he also buried any lingering anticipation that he might jump into the 2024 presidential melee. “A complete failure” is how a markedly less chipper Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina summed it up

Quaffing a few fizzy blue shooters of political optimism did make for a nice diversionary buzz, but unfortunately in Tennessee the hangover kicks in quickly and lasts an eternity. We can enjoy the view as we gaze covetously and wax optimistically from afar at other red states’ ballot box accomplishments, but alas, gazing and waxing are pretty much all we have. 

Unlike other states in which Democrats scored wins last week, Tennessee lacks the demographics diversity and constitutional support for voter-led ballot measures to make similar gains in the near future.

Social and economic demography explains a good part of this. Contentious red/blue elections are increasingly playing out in suburban swing districts. Democrats grow competitive in red-to-purple states by capturing liberalizing suburban voters, especially women, who are more amenable to political appeals rooted in equality, climate justice, and reproductive choice. In Tennessee, suburban and exurban counties around cities have been slower to turn blue and remain very conservative. 

Take Williamson County, for example. In presidential races Williamson went 26% for Barack Obama in 2012, then 31% for Hilliary Clinton in 2016, and then 37% for Joe Biden in 2020. Some blue progress, sure, but rather modest compared to Atlanta-adjacent Cobb County, which moved from 43% for Obama 2012 to 51% for Clinton in 2016 to 57% for Biden in 2020. 

Diversity is a nontrivial part of the demography equation. Southern states turned or turning purple are more racially and ethnically diverse than Tennessee. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates for each state an overall diversity index, which states the probability (a percentage chance) that two people chosen at random will be from different race or ethnicity groups. Using 2020 census data, For Tennessee the index is 47%. It is 58% in North Carolina, 61% in Virginia, and 64% in Georgia.

Senate Democratic leaders Scott Surovell and Mamie Locke hold up blue bricks symbolizing their “brick wall” against the GOP agenda during the Democratic Election Night Party in Richmond City, Va., November 7, 2023. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)
Senate Democratic leaders Scott Surovell and Mamie Locke hold up blue bricks symbolizing their “brick wall” against the GOP agenda during the Democratic Election Night Party in Richmond City, Va., November 7, 2023. Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce

But demography tells only part of the story. Tennessee faces a crucial obstacle in the form of its own state constitution, which allows for no citizen-driven processes of initiative and referendum. Ohio voters had the opportunity at the ballot box last week to write abortion protections into their state constitution because a coalition of groups collected more than 700.000 signatures on a petition getting the thing on the ballot. In Tennessee, no matter what the level of popular support for this or any idea, a constitutional amendment goes before voters only after supermajority approval by the legislature. 

When I took a deeper dive into Tennessee’s lack of ballot initiatives in this space three years ago, I learned that roughly half the states allow initiatives, and that in some places measures on the ballot are numerous to the point of distraction. Some in referendum-happy states fret that initiatives end up being used more as an instrument for influence by well-funded special interests than for genuine citizen activism. These are legitimate concerns, but the problem in a state like Tennessee with no ballot initiative process whatsoever is it leaves us with the tyranny of a dysfunctional one-party-dominated political culture that seems actively indifferent to public interest and public opinion on issues that matter to voters. 

For instance, we know empirically through polling that Tennesseans would much prefer more reproductive freedom, better firearms regulation, more access to healthcare through Medicaid expansion, higher minimum wages and more liberal marijuana laws (to name a few) than our state lawmakers are willing to even consider on our behalf. These are all measures that some states have enacted through ballot initiatives as a way to do the people’s business in the face of legislative intransigence. 

It is certainly enjoyable, as it was last week, to see Democrats make gains in places and on issues that matter, and watch Republicans fumble around with tortured explanations for yet another round of electoral disappointment. Alas, watching is only mildly satisfying when a vexing blend of Tennessee history, demography, and constitutional infirmity makes replicating the progressive successes of other red states virtually impossible. On an upbeat note, “virtually” need not mean “completely.” On a less upbeat note, I lack the space and bandwidth to navigate the difference.


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Bruce Barry
Bruce Barry

Bruce Barry is a professor of management at Vanderbilt University who teaches and writes about ethics, conflict, rights, politics, policy, and other things that pop into his head.