There’s no question, if there ever was one, about the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee Legislature – they are frightened little men.
They come to the Capitol from places like Corryton, Lewisburg, Lancaster, Georgetown, Dayton, Hixson, Sparta, Vonroe, Bean Station, Erin, Jacksboro, Old Hickory, Byrdstown, Springfield, Gray, East Ridge, Lobelville, Greenfield, Englewood, Culleoka, Ooltewan, and Portland. Some come from larger towns like Shelbyville, Cookeville, Jackson, and Clarksville, and others come from the suburbs of the largest Tennessee cities like Memphis and Nashville while sharing a rustic and tribal view of state government and a disdain for the democratic sharing of power.
They come to Nashville with a stupifying vein of anti-intellectualism and good old boy thinking. If there was a caucus for members of fundamentalist Christian churches, only a handful of legislators wouldn’t qualify.
For someone like me reared in this type of religious environment, it explains the religious underpinnings of the supermajority’s attitude – they want Blacks to stay in their place, women to obey the male head of the household and never ever aspire to be a pastor or deacon, and children to do what they’re told.
Their prejudices and bigotry are ratified by their religious beliefs, which feeds their antipathy toward people who are different, which means everyone who’s not White, heterosexual, and a fundamentalist Christian. Not a single Republican member of the State House lists a membership in the NAACP or any equal rights organization.
Turning Democracy on Its Head
All in all, their attack on three Black Democratic colleagues for standing with gun safety protestors was predictable. While the entire nation was gripped by their unapologetic bigotry in national media coverage, those of us who have seen them up close knew it was part and parcel of who the Legislature is.
That’s the thing. The legislators exist in a world where they are treated as if power equates to intelligence and pandering is the same as political leadership. It is a byproduct from the hot house self-importance that seems to drip from the walls of the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. There, they get their rings kissed, they preen and parade through the halls of the Capitol as if they are gods, and they dispense their benevolence to the deserving who kneel to their might.
I’ve said that if I was ever told I had a week to live, I would ask to be sent to the Legislative Plaza because the week would feel like forever. Such is the oppressive languor for the average person set down in this alien landscape. But for the supermajority legislators, it is Nirvana inflating their egos and conceit.
The irony about this contrived world is that super majority Republicans are so frightened of looking weak that they move closer and closer to disaster.
They forget that democracy comes from those who put them there. Instead, they come to believe they are legislators because of their own brilliance and luminosity which is why so many planets orbit around them in the form of fawning assistants, flattering entreaties from political operatives, and perks and gifts delivered to their offices.
In their own minds, they assume a self-importance that is not tied to how good they do their jobs or about leaving the state better than they found it but how much praise and encomium they receive from others. They become sponges; there cannot be too much adulation or the idea that it might someday end.
History Will Judge Them Harshly
A former Shelby County elected official once said after leaving office, he picked up the phone a couple of times a day to make sure it was still working. That’s the future of this supermajority. While it may be in time a harsh reality for them, it pales in comparison to the judgement that history will make.
It seems a safe bet that history will say that while politics’ purpose at its heart is to drive democracy, in the Tennessee Legislature in the 21st century, it became anathema to democracy itself.
It became about raw power and revengeful legislation, it became about hate that became a thread running through its legislative actions, about exchanging favors to deliver largesse to political contributors and insiders and sometimes to constituents.
It is in this stilted terrain that the Republican supermajority sets aside decency and debate in favor of disrespect and dogmatism. In the process, they shred the norms which long served the Tennessee Legislature well, and in the process, compromise and finding common ground with the broadest possible support are dismissed as archaic and anachronistic.
They Are Scared
It was into this parallel universe that Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville bravely entered. They were destined to become targets of the extremist supermajority. They are young, they are passionate, they are gifted debaters, and they are African American. Most of all, they were determined to have an impact and to speak for their constituents.
Almost immediately, they were criticized for the way they dressed (Mr. Pearson dared wear a dashiki), for what they read (1619 Project which the right wing wanted to ban from school libraries and from the classroom), and for the issues that actually mattered (like calling for smarter gun laws in the wake of the Nashville school massacre).
While the supermajority engaged in intimidation – cutting off their microphones and refusing to allow them to speak – they were clearly frightened. Here were two young Black men unwilling to play the game and go along to get along.
It’s not like the supermajority wasn’t already frightened. They are scared of educators teaching children historical and scientific facts, they are scared of parents making health decisions for their trans kids, they are scared of people in drag, they are scared of women in control of their own bodies, they are scared of doctors in charge of their own medical decisions, they are scared of books in the library, and they are scared of the blue cities, Nashville and Memphis although they drive the state’s economy and produce the revenues that pay their salaries.
But Justin Pearson and Justin Jones presented the most frightening thing of all: they represented the future.
They Didn’t Quit Digging
It’s because they are afraid that right wing extremists are so desperate to put their thumbs on the scale of democracy. Without their interventions to suppress election turnout, change the rules, and gerrymander districts to dilute Democratic votes, the demographic handwriting is on the wall: younger voters are moving away from the Republican Party and its MAGA themes, positions, chaos, and grievances.
Most of all, these younger voters are not interested in business as usual, the kind that results in assault weapons killing children in school and ineffective ideas that address everything but the main thing – the proliferation of guns that the supermajority has created.
Generally speaking, if you find yourself in a hole, you should quit digging. The supermajority was so intent on teaching its young, Black colleagues a lesson, they kept digging. Because of the motion to expel Mr. Pearson and Mr. Jones, whose voices were shut down by the supermajority in the regular course of business, the entire nation heard the two legislators.
Rather than diminishing them, the Republicans turned them into national heroes and voices for their generation.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
It began to bend in the Tennessee Legislature last week. The arc for change will indeed be long, but the entire country saw what the Legislature has become and how the frightened, little men are undermining democracy there.
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