The United States is profoundly and increasingly politically divided, with fundamental lines of fracture: conservative rural versus liberal urban, white conservative versus more liberal diverse, religious conservatives versus less religious liberals, educated liberals and less educated conservatives, and geographically, with conservative states concentrated in the middle of the country, particularly the South and the West and liberal states in the Northeast and West Coast. The divide is growing, as the two sides become more extreme, and more hostile to the other.
Tennessee is typical of a Southern, Red state. Compared to the country as a whole it is more white, less Latino (but more Black), more rural, more religious with more than twice as many evangelicals, with a lower average level of education as compared to the entire country.
Given these statistics, we can easily predict that Tennessee is Red, it has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1994. In the 2020 presidential election, 60.7% voted for Trump and 37.5% for Biden. The way the US election system works, when one party is dominant in a state, the proportion of elected officials representing that party will be far greater than the weight of its electorate. Although nearly 40% of voters in Tennessee vote for Democrats, 8 out of 9 members (89%) representing Tennessee in the US House of Representatives are Republican, as are both US Senators and the Governor, and in the Tennessee state Senate 27 out of 33 (82%) are Republican just as in the state House of Representatives 75 out of 99 (76%).
Why this disproportion? Two principal reasons. Typically, a state’s House of Representatives draws voting districts and if that body is dominated by one Party, it will draw up districts in a process called Gerrymandering that will favor that Party (this practice applies to both Red and Blue states). Additionally, because Democratic voters tend to be concentrated in urban centers, it is easy in Republican controlled states to regroup a very high proportion of Democratic voters in a small number of districts, leaving the rest of the state districts lopsided in favor of Republicans.
If, as is the case for Tennessee, the state Senate, the state House of Representatives and the Governor are from the same Party, it is called a “Trifecta“, giving enormous power to one Party, and if in the state chambers the dominant Party has a super-majority, it is able to pass any legislation ignoring totally the wishes of the minority party. The increasing polarization of the US political domain is reflected in the fact that of the 50 states, nearly 80% are Trifectas, 22 Republican including 16 with Republican supermajorities in both Houses and 17 Democratic Trifectas, including 8 with Democratic supermajorities. This means that in 24 out of the 50 states with one party having supermajorities, democracy cannot function, there is absolutely no need for healthy debate and compromise, no space whatsoever for the voice of the minority party and in an additional 15 states, even though they do not have supermajority, one party nevertheless dominates the proceedings. In only 11 states in the entire country can we say that democracy is operating smoothly.
The state of Tennessee is in the headlines this week, exhibiting the bad traits of an ideologically polarized America.
Events started with the worse school shooting in the state, when a 28 year old man entered a school in Nashville and used assault weapons to kill three 9 year-old children and three adults. As is often the case after a mass murder, there are immediate public calls for stricter gun control laws, and in the proceedings of the Tennessee House which are open to the public, a large crowd gathered to urge the politicians to toughen gun laws. The Tennessee House, dominated by older, conservative men, ignored the protests. Three Democratic Representatives, Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson interrupted the proceedings of the House to lead the crowd to a loud, public protest calling for the House to address gun control issues, preventing the House from carrying on its business, with the session ending in chaos.
Jones and Pearson are young, recently elected Black members of the House, coming directly out of the activism of the “Black Lives Matter” movement after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, elected by increasingly liberal progressive voters in the cities, Johnson is a 60-year old retired teacher, also representing a liberal city constituency.
Republicans in the House were furious at the “Tennessee Three” who had upset their proceedings, and decided, for only the third time since the Civil War, to vote to expel the three members. Three separate votes were held, the two young Black Representatives were expelled while the older, white woman held on to her seat. When asked why she was treated differently, Gloria Johnson said: “I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men.”
Democrats throughout the country reacted with anger at the action of the Tennessee House, viewed as overtly racist, with national Republicans remaining quiet on the issue. For the two expelled legislators, they have been given a national profile, have received contributions from the whole country and are likely to be re-elected to their seats by their constituency, but they will continue to have little power, so long as Republicans hold supermajority in the House. And of course, there is unlikely to be any gun control legislation passed in Tennessee any time soon.
The Tennessee example represents the state of much of the US today, two opposing and increasingly hostile Parties, with one of the two dominating in most of the country – in 22 Republican states but also in 17 Democratic states – imposing its will to the detriment of democratic discourse, with echoes of conflicts of race and of generations, and no signs of any movement to improve the system.