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IS Tennessee a Democracy? 4 min read

IS Tennessee a Democracy?

A seemingly unserious question reveals a very serious answer (and problem).

By Cary Littlejohn

The somewhat provocative title—"Is Tennessee a Democracy?"—stared up at me from the front page of The Atlantic’s mobile app.

Is Tennessee a Democracy?
What happened when a Republican supermajority gained control—and wasn’t satisfied

For some, perhaps the question is innocuous. But for me, when articles are published about places I’ve called home (like yesterday’s post about library apps being banned for those 18 and under in Mississippi), it really does produce a sort of knee-jerk defensiveness. Tennessee was my home home, where I was born and spent the first 25 years of my life. Of course, it’s a democracy! What are we even talking about here?

But the truth is simple: Tennessee has changed a lot since I lived there. And I’d argue not for the better.

Consider Anne Applebaum’s reason for visiting Tennessee in the first place, as she shared it in the article:

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.

How bleak is that?

And then after taking pains to ensure readers don’t misunderstand her meaning (i.e., that Tennessee is not, in fact, Central Europe in the grasp of authoritarian rule), she highlights the reasons it seemed like a worthwhile topic to explore:

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.

It’s wild to think that a state totally and completely in the clutches of a single political party couldn’t (or, more accurately, wouldn’t) deliver on such rock-solidly popular measures, until a person realizes that Tennessee is, at best, a weak democracy.

As Applebaum points out, the goal in this current system is not to win office and enact preferred policies, though there is the requisite degree of that, as there always has been. But it’s more about crushing the opposition:

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.”

This genuinely hurts my heart. Not just because it’s the polar opposite of my own political beliefs or how democracy should work in general, but because Tennessee is a complicated state and was always in this middle position: the top of the Old South, the bottom of the North, bipartisan for a long time, sensible, a place where politics (and more accurately democracy) could play out as intended. Applebaum said it thusly:

“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.

Of course, I’d prefer my home state be unambiguously supportive of my view of government and the law, but failing that, it was somehow comforting to grow up in a place that had this complicated mixture at its core, a place that perhaps defined what’s possible for a New South. Seems less and less likely that the state will take up that mantle, no matter how liberal and diverse and cosmopolitan a place like Nashville becomes. It looks as if it’s relegated to being a blue dot in a sea of red, while the sea just grows redder and redder still.