Is Tennessee a Democracy?

Is Tennessee a Democracy?

Drive along the outer rim of the exurbs north of Nashville, past structures that might be barns or might be wedding venues, around developments called Vineyard Grove or New Hope Village, and eventually you will arrive at what is meant to be the new headquarters of the election commission of Sumner County, Tennessee. A featureless one-story brick warehouse with some makeshift offices attached, it has just enough space for the tiny handful of election-commission employees, the 275 voting machines that they recently purchased, and maybe some of the maintenance workers who used to share rooms with them, back when the agency was still in the basement of the county-administration building.

Dusty picnic tables crowd against the wall. An elementary school stands a few hundred yards away. Nothing about this building or its location screams “controversy.” But when Sumner County’s local elections brought a faction that calls itself the Constitutional Republicans to power last year, that is what it nevertheless became.

To fully grasp this story, you need to understand that the standard forms of American political polarization don’t exist in Sumner, a rural but rapidly suburbanizing county where Democrats are not part of the equation at all. None has won any county office for more than two decades. Instead, the main opponents of the Constitutional Republicans, who won 14 out of 17 seats on the county commission (following a general election in which only 15 percent of eligible voters cast ballots), are the ordinary Republicans—or, as their opponents would call them, RINOs (“Republicans in name only”). The Constitutional Republicans’ website explains that RINOs are different from themselves: “They raise taxes, they vote to silence the citizens, they won’t protect private property rights. They often partner with Democrats to defeat true Constitutional Republicans like us.”

Upon taking over the county commission, the Constitutional Republicans issued a document formally declaring that their activities will be “reflective of Judeo-Christian values inherent in the nation’s founding.” They also shut down the HR department, tried to privatize a public historic building, and refused to pay for the election commission’s move to the brick building, although it had been agreed by the previous administration. The old offices—three basement rooms that recently flooded—were too small to store the new voting machines, and also insecure. The entrance to the basement stood right beside a cashier’s window where dozens of people were lined up to pay taxes on the day I visited. The county commissioners are unmoved by those arguments. “If we don’t fund it, you don’t get to do it,” Jeremy Mansfield, one of the Constitutional Republicans on the county commission, told the election commission at one public meeting about the move last fall. At a meeting in June, another county commissioner, angered because the new voting machines had been delivered to the new building, said that although he would “hate to pull the ace card,” the commission could always “declare this property surplus, and sell it.” That would leave the election commission, and its machines, with nowhere to go.

[Peter Wehner: An acute attack of Trumpism in Tennessee]

The building seems a small thing to get worked up about. But Facebook posts and videos of public meetings, all available online—the Constitutional Republicans are very transparent—make clear that this is not a trivial jurisdictional dispute and these are not petty people. They have ambitions and interests that extend well beyond their county. Their Facebook page reacted to the news of Donald Trump’s latest indictment by declaring, “The Biden family is an organized crime family,” and “Our justice system is rigged against Trump.” Another post asked whether Tennessee “should secede from the Union.” More to the point, Mansfield, who didn’t respond to my request for an interview (his view of the press is clear on his Facebook page, on which someone refers to the Associated Press as “American Pravda” and he responds “except that Pravda does more honest reporting”), wrote a long post back in February attacking early voting and voting machines: “The gold standard for election integrity would be paper ballots filled out by people and counted by people in local precincts on election day.”

The Constitutional Republicans are confident in these views for a reason. “Our beliefs are derived from the bible,” their website declares: “We pray at every meeting and we seek God in all we do! His wisdom guides our decisions.” The same source gives them confidence that their enemies are wrong. “Evil never sleeps,” Mansfield wrote on Facebook, after reflecting on the critics who he said were attacking him for fighting against new development in the county, “so we must heed Churchill’s words, never give in, and never give up fighting for what is good and right.”

Few of these ambitious goals are within their reach. The Sumner County commissioners can’t arrest President Joe Biden. They can’t secede. But the county’s election commission, whose members are appointed by the bipartisan state election commission, is right there. It’s a local embodiment of the broader culture they dislike and of the government they distrust. If they can stick the agency back in the flood-prone basement, they will.

Tom Lee, the lawyer for the Sumner election commission—it is now suing the county—has an additional explanation as well. Lee points out that the Constitutional Republicans arrived in office wanting to enact deep, revolutionary change. That means that, whatever the previous regime decided, they are against it: “They are coming to power and saying, ‘Everything that came before us doesn’t count. We represent something new and different, and we don’t have to have any allegiance to the past.’” I told him that this sounded like the language used by the Bolsheviks, among other revolutionaries. He didn’t laugh.

Most of the time, Tennessee politics doesn’t make national news. That changed in April, when the leaders of the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two Democratic legislators, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. The two men were accused of disrupting proceedings, because they repeated the demands of gun-control activists on the floor of the chamber, during a recess, using a megaphone.

The incident created a wave of outrage. The punishment seemed both extreme—since Reconstruction, only two people have been expelled from the Tennessee legislature, one for bribery and the other for alleged sexual misconduct—and racist, because it deliberately targeted two young Black men. A third protester, Representative Gloria Johnson, who is white, was allowed to keep her house seat. Belatedly, the Republicans who made this decision realized that it looked bad. At an acrimonious meeting held afterward (a tape of which leaked to The Tennessee Holler, a local online publication), they expressed no regret at the expulsions, but they did berate one of the members for not voting to expel Johnson, on the grounds that leaving her out made them all seem like racists. The decision also made heroes of the protesters, now dubbed the Tennessee Three, a title previously bestowed on Johnny Cash’s backup band. Jones and Pearson were reinstated by local officials, pending special elections in August, and became instant national stars.

But in truth, their story did not start on that day. Not so long ago, Tennessee was not merely a more bipartisan state but a model of bipartisanship, an example to others. Keel Hunt, a columnist for the Tennessean newspaper (and a Democrat who once worked for a Republican governor, Lamar Alexander), wrote a book about the 1980s and ’90s, an era when moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans ruled the state; when Tennessee sent Alexander, Howard Baker, Al Gore, and Jim Sasser to the U.S. Senate; and when many of the decisions that paved the way for Tennessee’s current investment boom were made. The book is called Crossing the Aisle: How Bipartisanship Brought Tennessee to the Twenty-First Century and Could Save America. So much has changed since then, Hunt told me, that the book “might now qualify as an obituary.”

Today, Tennessee is a model of one-party rule. It has a Republican governor and legislature. Republican appointees run the state supreme court. The state’s nine-member U.S. House delegation contains eight Republicans; Tennessee has sent two Republicans to the Senate. The governor is the only other official elected statewide. Unlike in other states, the attorney general and secretary of state in Tennessee are appointed, and they are both Republicans too.

[Brian Klaas: The red states experimenting with authoritarianism]

Nor will the situation be easy to change, because gerrymandering is something of a blood sport in the state. The still-blue city of Nashville had a single Democrat representing it in Congress, but when the map was redrawn before the 2022 elections, GOP lawmakers split Nashville into three districts that stretch out into the countryside. Each elected a Republican. Instead of Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog moderate Democrat who held the seat for two decades, Nashville is now represented by, among others, Andy Ogles, who is best known for sending out a holiday card featuring himself, his children, and his wife all holding guns in front of a Christmas tree. State-level gerrymandering is just as vicious—Johnson reckons that one redistricting included a special effort to eliminate her from politics: “They split my precinct and drew a line basically a few blocks around my house to draw me out of the district,” she told me. (She moved, ran again, and won.)

voting booth on top of a mountain
Photo-Illustration by Ricardo Tomás for The Atlantic. Sources: Getty.

Getting people to vote is not so easy, either, because Tennessee has some of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws. You can’t register to vote any later than 30 days before the election. If you vote by absentee ballot, it has to arrive by mail on or before Election Day. There are no drop boxes. First-time voters have to vote in person, which is a special problem for college students studying out of state. In 2019, the legislature passed a law subjecting voter-registration campaigners to financial or criminal penalties if they submit too many erroneous forms—a provision that seemed designed to discourage get-out-the-vote campaigns, was blocked as unconstitutional, and later repealed. Perhaps none of these rules alone would seem outrageous. But the “cumulative effect,” argues Tricia Herzfeld, a Democrat who serves on Nashville’s election commission, “is to make it hard to vote.” There is evidence for that theory: Tennessee has either one of the lowest or else the very lowest voter-turnout rates in the country, depending on how you count. And that, of course, is even before Sumner County moved to deprive its election commission of office space, conceivably making it difficult for anyone there to vote at all.

I came to Tennessee partly because I wondered how similar it might feel to Poland and Hungary, where for the past decade I’ve been warily observing the decline of democracy and the rise of the one-party state. The very large differences are immediately clear in Nashville, where music is the backdrop to everything, where everyone seems to be coming from a party or heading to one, where people on both sides of the political spectrum went out of their way to introduce me to other people. “This is a son-in-law kind of town,” someone told me. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant (something to do with everyone looking after friends and relatives?), but it was amusing. For that and many other reasons, Nashville is not Budapest-on-the-Cumberland. The Bill of Rights still applies. Federal judges rule on Tennessee laws. The U.S. Constitution is widely and even ostentatiously revered. There is no Central European gloom.

Nevertheless, the cascade of tiny legal and procedural changes designed to create an unlevel playing field, the ruling party’s inexplicable sense of grievance, the displaced moderates with nowhere to go—this did seem familiar from other places. So was the sense that institutional politics has become performative, somehow separated from real life. The Tennessee Three staged their protest on the floor of the legislature, after all, because the conversation unfolding there had taken no notice of the much larger protests happening outside the chamber. A few days earlier, a horrific mass shooting at Covenant, a private Christian school in Nashville, had galvanized the public. Opinion polls showed that more than 70 percent of Tennesseans want red-flag laws that would allow officials to remove guns from people who might misuse them, while more than 80 percent support background checks and other gun-safety laws.

Those enormous majorities were not reflected in the legislative debate. In the days following the school shooting, it was just “business as usual,” Justin Kanew, the founder and editor of The Tennessee Holler, told me. Kanew, a transplant from California like a number of people in Nashville, is himself a former Democratic candidate for Congress in Tennessee. During his campaign, he saw a gap in the public conversation, and that experience led him to found the Holler. Or rather the Hollers: There are now several Twitter offshoots—the Chattanooga Holler, the Clarksville Holler, and so on—all focused on the hyperlocal issues that the statewide media were missing. Kanew’s own talent is for a form of campaigning journalism: He produces short video clips, often of state legislators, and then circulates them on social media. Sometimes they go viral. That’s what he was doing on the day the Tennessee Three made their protest. “There were thousands of people showing up at the capitol,” he told me, “asking for something to happen. And if nothing had happened, that would have been pretty deflating.”

[Read: The Tennessee expulsions are just the beginning]

This was not the first time that the Republican leadership sought to shut down debate. The house’s “two Justins,” as they are now known, brought their megaphone precisely because the Republican leadership commonly turns off Democrats’ microphones when they are speaking. Representative Bo Mitchell was once cut off when he told the house, “Please don’t say you are pro-life and put more weapons on the street”—a statement ruled to be insulting. Jones told me that he was ruled out of order during a committee meeting because he’d said the leadership was “putting a Band-Aid on the issue” of school shootings; a few days later he was also told he had to remove a ban assault weapons pin from his jacket. Republicans insist, as Tennessee House Majority Leader William Lamberth told a local television station, that speakers are meant to stick to the topic: “It’s not open-mic night.”

Under relatively recent rules, individual members’ question time has been cut from 15 minutes to five. Occasionally, people who want to raise objections are not called on at all. During a debate on a bill regulating abortion, Gloria Johnson told me, “I stood on the house floor for 45 minutes, the entire argument of the bill, and they refused to call on me.” These tactics are new. Johnson, who has served in the legislature on and off for more than a decade, told me that although the house also had a Republican supermajority when she joined in 2012, the speaker at that time didn’t exclude Democrats from debate. “I don’t recall her refusing to call on me,” she said. Jones, who was a community organizer in Nashville for a decade before being elected, agreed that previous speakers were more open to conversation. “This was the most extreme session I have ever seen,” he said. “Republicans now treat the legislature as a private palace, a fraternity house or a country club.”

Nor is radicalization visible only in the legislature. Just as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fights with opposition-controlled Budapest (and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fights with Istanbul, and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński fights with Warsaw), so do Tennessee Republicans fight with opposition-controlled Nashville. Over breakfast at the Elliston Place Soda Shop—he likes showing off the city sites—Nashville Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat (and brother of Jim Cooper, the former member of Congress), ticked off the various disputes between the city and the state with a certain level of weariness: about control over the airport, about the beer board, about the sports authority, about the size of the city council (Republicans tried to cut it from 40 members to 20), and about the 2024 Republican National Convention—which, partly thanks to all of the other quarrels, will not take place in Nashville.

Some of the disputes are just about who controls the money, but he thinks real cultural friction underlies those too. Whereas Nashville used to be what the mayor calls a “big county-seat kind of town,” famous for its music clubs, now it’s also a focus of international investment, health-care investment, and tech investment. Oracle is building a $1 billion–plus campus in the city; Amazon has a major presence here too. On the morning we met, Mayor Cooper was jet-lagged, having just returned from Kurdistan. He went there because Nashville, aside from being the city that launched Taylor Swift, is also home to one of the largest Kurdish communities in America. After breakfast, he drove me to the East Bank, the site of the city’s next major development project, one that will include a new stadium, new housing, and some infrastructure renovations; along the way, we passed a remarkable collection of building sites, replete with giant cranes. Still, in the conservative mediaverse, Nashville’s city leaders are just another set of enemies. Fox News once devoted a whole segment to Cooper—in which Tucker Carlson accused him, falsely, of concealing information about COVID.

Kanew (and he isn’t alone) thinks the state serves as a kind of “guinea pig,” a test market in this same mediaverse, a place where new culture-war themes can be experimentally stoked. A war on judges as well as on remote voting began in 2021, when the chair of a key house subcommittee sought to remove a judge who had ruled in favor of expanding the right to vote by mail during the pandemic. Last September, the governor and other Republicans lashed out at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, allegedly for suppressing employees who criticized the university’s gender clinic, charges the university denied. More recently, the state attorney general has investigated the clinic, demanding private medical records.

Sometimes these efforts are clawed back. A determined group of local lawyers and lobbyists helped get some exceptions for the life of the mother enshrined into the state’s abortion ban. A Trump-appointed federal judge recently overturned another culture-war gesture, a Tennessee law banning public drag performances, on the grounds that it chilled free speech. But whether individual pieces of hard-line legislation stick might not matter, because part of the point of passing them is just to allow local politicians to align themselves with the general views of that same conservative mediaverse. One example: a recent resolution passed by the legislature to “recognize and commend” Orbán’s think tank, the Danube Institute, which promotes illiberal and antidemocratic ideas. Jones, objecting to that resolution, asked Tim Hicks, the Republican who proposed it, if he knew who Orbán was. He did not. One disgruntled Republican described this whole process to me as “governing by anecdote.” You could also describe it as “governing by Fox News.”

[From the January/February 2022 issue: The great (fake) child-sex-trafficking epidemic]

But every so often, a glimpse of something uglier appears, a hint that some people want more than culture wars designed for TikTok, Twitter, and the evening news. Walking to her home in Nashville, an acquaintance saw a car with a shoot your local pedophile bumper sticker, showing an outline of a man holding a gun to another man’s head. T-shirts with this image, phrasing, and implied approval of violence are for sale online. “This isn’t new to you, but it’s new to us,” she told me, which isn’t quite true. Poland, where I live part of the time, has had one political murder in recent years, but it was a knife murder. In Tennessee, people have guns. Jim Cooper, the former member of Congress, told me that getting anyone to run for office as a Democrat in some rural parts of the state is difficult partly because Democrat and pedophile are so often conflated by Republican activists, and potential candidates are spooked. About half of the state-legislature seats were uncontested in 2022.

Boot stepping on the TN flag
Photo-Illustration by Ricardo Tomás for The Atlantic. Sources: Getty.

Not that the problem of finding Democrats to run for office is new. Cooper also told me that one of his staff used to comb through local newspapers and look for people who had written angry letters to the editor. Then she would call them up and ask them to stand for election. Some said yes. Though most of them lost, he considered that a kind of victory. Jones thinks that after the expulsion crisis, “young people are fired up, bringing urgency to our politics,” and that more candidates will come forward. But there will be a steep road to climb if people fear that what is at stake in their local election is not tax rates and building permits but the safety and even the lives of their children—and if they fight back with real weapons.

If that possibility sounds ludicrous, or incredible, it shouldn’t. Kanew, the Tennessee Holler editor, woke up one night last April to the sound of gunfire. Someone had shot up the front of his house. No one has yet been arrested.

“You know the old saying: All politics is national.” That’s what the mayor of Nashville told me over his ham and eggs. “All politics is national,” several other people said to me too. It’s a joke—“All politics is local” is the old political chestnut—but also not a joke. In the past couple of years, prominent and less-prominent conservatives have been flocking from all over the country to Tennessee and, more precisely, to Williamson County, adjacent to Nashville and, partly thanks to that proximity, now one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The town of Franklin, Williamson’s county seat, has a large and well-lit (I visited at night) monument to the soldiers of the Confederacy. It is also home to equally monumental culture-war clashes and school-board battles that can rival those anywhere else in the country. The New York Times columnist David French, who lives there, reckons that “only 15 percent of my neighbors are Democrats.” The Daily Wire, a conservative media company that specializes in culture-war clashes and school-board battles, is now based in Nashville, as are a handful of its stars.

“All politics is national” is also the explanation that a lot of people gave me when I asked how Tennessee went from having a culture of bipartisanship to de facto one-party rule in a mere two decades. Almost everybody wanted to explain that Tennessee politics used to reflect the state’s particular geography (mountains in the east, Mississippi River Delta in the west, rivers and forest in the middle) and complicated history. Some Tennesseans had declared for the Confederacy; others fought against it. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee; Nashville was the site of a series of sit-ins that were important to the civil-rights movement. The disgruntled Republicans in particular mourn the death of what used to be called “Tennessee enlightened mountain Republicanism,” the liberal, business-oriented party that once challenged the pre-civil-rights “Old South” Democratic one-party state, which relied on Jim Crow and voter suppression. For a long time, both parties celebrated the demise of that system, and no one wanted it back. Or so it seemed.

By some accounts, the shift began in the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, when talk radio and a confrontational new style of national media began to weaken the local newspapers that people used to read, and the local culture too. Others think the turning point came in the 2000s, when Barack Obama’s presidency produced a racist backlash. In 2012, one poll showed that nearly half of Tennessee Republicans believed in the birtherism conspiracy theory.

Still others think the harder shift inside the Republican Party began more recently, after it gained full control. John Geer, a Vanderbilt political scientist, told me that whenever a supermajority controls a legislature for a long period of time, “those in the minority have no political ability to effect change, and so they stop acting like politicians and instead become activists,” a thesis that explains the actions of the Tennessee Three, as well as the feeling that politics has become a form of performance art, only distantly related to real life.

But the supermajority is also affected, and its members become activists of a different kind. To stay in office in a state where few people vote and districts are gerrymandered, Tennessee legislators need to appeal to only a tiny number of very dedicated, very partisan people. The competition for those votes can quite quickly turn into a competition for who can sound most radical. Even the minority leader of the Tennessee State Senate, Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat, told me that it’s harder to do deals with people from heavily gerrymandered districts: “You don’t have anybody to check you and your district is extremely partisan.” Her own district skews heavily Democratic and heavily Black. “If I wasn’t someone who was willing to compromise, I wouldn’t have to,” Akbari said.

There is another element: Call it the lesson of Sumner County, the place where Republicans won everything, control everything, and yet still feel aggrieved and victimized. As in Hungary or Poland or as in Venezuela, the experience of radicalism can make people more radical. Total control of a political system can make the victors not more magnanimous, but more frustrated, not least because they learn that total control still doesn’t deliver what they think it should. No county commission or state legislature can possibly meet the demands of a quasi-religious movement that believes it has God on its side and that its opponents herald the apocalypse. But that doesn’t mean they give up. It just means they keep trying, using any tool available. Eventually they arrive at the point described by Tom Lee, the lawyer for the Sumner County Election Commission: “It’s not enough to get your majority and get your way—they have to make the minority lose their voice.”

On the tape leaked to The Tennessee Holler after the expulsion of Pearson and Jones, this dynamic is powerfully revealed. Grim Republican legislators talked about what they think is really at stake, and it isn’t megaphones. “If you don’t believe we are at war for our republic,” one of them says to the group, “with all love and respect to you, you need a different job.” They don’t believe that this is a normal political competition, either, or that their opponents are a normal, legitimate, small-d democratic opposition. Democrats, says another, “are not our friends.” They “destroy our republic and the foundation of who we are.” At one point, an apocalyptic tone creeps into the conversation: “The left wants Tennessee so bad because if they get us, the Southeast falls and it’s ‘game over’ for the republic.” So urgent and so dramatic is this challenge that some of them have come to believe that rules might have to be broken: “You gotta do what’s right, even if you think it might be wrong,” one of them says.

You gotta do what’s right, even if you think it might be wrong. Fight for the republic, because otherwise it will be “game over”: The language itself wouldn’t be unusual, if this were a radical minority fighting for its very existence. But this is the Republican Party, the party that controls pretty much everything in Tennessee. They are going to win the next election, and probably the one after that. Yet they sound as if winning isn’t enough: They also want their opponents to fall silent, and they are doing what they can to make that happen.

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