It has been a good week for democracy.
Two members of the Tennessee Three, Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville, were overwhelmingly reelected to the seats Republicans expelled them from earlier this year. Their crime? Speaking up for the victims of gun violence in the wake of the horrific massacre at Covenant School, one of the darkest days in our state’s recent history.
Pearson and Jones technically breached the rules of the Tennessee House of Representatives when they took to the well in March, but their expulsion was a gross overreaction by House Speaker Cameron Sexton. Many in our state and across the nation rightly saw it not as a chance to enforce decorum, but to silence dissent from the minority caucus. If that wasn’t despicable enough, Republicans chose to expel only Pearson and Jones, while allowing Gloria Johnson – a white representative from Knoxville who is the third in the Tennessee Three – to keep her seat. (She is challenging far-right US Senator Marsha Blackburn in next year’s election, so consider this my endorsement.)
This is but the most recent attack on democracy from Tennessee Republicans. Things have gotten so bad that last month Anne Appelbaum – an esteemed journalist most known for covering the rise of illiberal, antidemocratic regimes around the world – posed a simple but jarring question in The Atlantic: “Is Tennessee a Democracy?”
Our state has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation, making it difficult for people to exercise this most fundamental right. Even if they can vote, there is a chance that vote won’t count – or won’t count fairly, at any rate. Tennessee is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, with districts at the state and federal level drawn by Republicans to diminish or outright destroy Democratic political power. In one of the most egregious examples, Gloria Johnson’s home was carved out of her district, forcing her to move less than a mile down the road to run for her seat. Nashville, a big blue dot in a sea of Middle Tennessee red, has been “dismembered” to dilute Democratic votes there.
Ensuring an unrepresentative election result is not enough for the GOP, though. Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Republicans passed laws which penalized peaceful protest, adding to statutes enacted in the wake of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests which were meant to curb public demonstrations. Earlier this year, Republicans enacted a ban on public drag performances, which I wrote at the time was not merely meant to punish gender nonconformity but deliberately vague enough “to allow the Republicans who possess a stranglehold on Tennessee government and law enforcement agencies to use state power to curtail the rights of their political opponents.” It seemed a federal judge agreed with me and ruled the law is unconstitutional.
However, as last night’s election shows, the voice of the people cannot be silenced no matter how much Republicans wish it could be. Is Tennessee still a democracy? Barely, perhaps. But yes, it is. Republicans have tried every nefarious trick they can think of, from gerrymandering to voter suppression, yet the people’s voice is still heard loud and clear. The overwhelming return of Jones and Pearson to the Capitol is a reminder that this state does not belong to Cameron Sexton or the Republican Party. It belongs to we, the people.
Governor Bill Lee has shown signs of getting that message. Another Republican – every leader in this state is a Republican – broke with his caucus over red flag laws following the Covenant School shooting. This should not be surprising; 72 percent of Tennesseans support red flag laws, and the issue of gun control led to massive protests at the Capitol following the Covenant massacre – which in turn led to the eventual expulsions of Jones and Pearson.
There is a lesson here. Lee sees the writing on the walls and is responding to public opinion. In doing so, he is reminding Tennesseans what Republicans wish we would forget: they work for us. This is our state, not theirs. Whatever obstacles they put in our way, we can out-organize and out-campaign and eventually vote them out. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
We saw that in Tennessee last night just as we saw it in Washington DC this week. Donald Trump’s indictment for his alleged role in the January 6 insurrection is another heartening development, reminding all of us that no man is above the law – not even the President of the United States.
In Tennessee, we see an example of what Trump seems to have wanted: unlimited and unquestioned power, to hell with the people and their votes. Even here, though, in the rubiest of red states, the people will not be silenced. When we rise and demand our voices are heard, our power outmatches the worst demagogues and authoritarians the right can muster.
As the brilliant composer Federic Rzewski knew and scored in his masterpiece of protest music, the people, united, will never be defeated. Representatives Jones, Johnson, and Pearson know it. Governor Lee is learning it. And the people of Tennessee are showing the rest of the country just how true it is.