Gerrymandering And The Tennessee Three

I’ve repeatedly inveighed against gerrymandering on this blog. (Anyone who wants to revisit the multiple ills that flow from that nefarious practice need only put “gerrymandering” into the search box and re-read those periodic rants.) I wouldn’t test the patience of my regular readers by returning to the subject, but for the vivid and shocking example provided by lawmakers in Tennessee.

The bare-bone facts are these: Three members of the Tennessee legislature joined an estimated thousand protesters who had marched to the statehouse in the wake of that state’s school shooting, demanding gun reform. According to several reports, they had bullhorns, and disrupted the order of the assembly. The protest itself was described by the media as peaceful–giving the lie to the hysterical Republican lawmakers who compared it to the January 6th insurrection.

Tennessee has a Republican supermajority–courtesy of gerrymandering–and that supermajority responded by voting to eject two of the three–the Black ones.

The three lawmakers did violate House rules, and a reprimand of some sort would have been appropriate. They could have been censured, or removed from committee assignments. But as the Washington Post noted

Republicans charged them with breaking House rules of conduct, which they don’t deny. But the protests, while raucous, were peaceful, and according to the Tennessean, no lawmaker has ever been expelled for breaching decorum rules….

All of this mirrors a larger story. Red states are sinking deeper into virulent far-right culture-warring — banning books, limiting classroom discussion of race and gender and prohibiting gender-affirming care for transgender youth. GOP legislatures passing these things were of course legitimately elected by majorities, though in some cases gerrymanders increase their power.

I would amend that last sentence to read “in most cases, gerrymanders increase their power.”

Those legislatures are also finding onerous ways to use power to tamp down on the unexpectedly ferocious dissent their culture war has unleashed among numerical minorities, largely concentrated in cities and suburbs inside red states. As analyst Ron Brownstein argues, this often pits an overwhelmingly White, older, rural and small-town Republican coalition against an increasingly diverse, younger and more urban coalition.

“These Republican legislatures are stacking sandbags against a rising tide,” Brownstein told CNN. Call it the GOP retreat into Fortress MAGA.

As the article notes, Republican-dominated state legislatures are pushing “preemption” laws that restrict cities and counties from making their own policy choices. It listed examples from DeSantis’ Florida, and from Georgia (and could easily have found similar ones from Indiana)

Yet this retreat into Fortress MAGA faces a problem: Whenever state-level Republicans undertake another reactionary lurch, it often goes national in a big way. Attention has poured down on everything from insanely broad book bans to shockingly harsh proposed punishments for abortion to anti-transgender crackdowns with truly creepy implications.

The Tennessee super-majority expelled these lawmakers simply because they could–because their supermajority (courtesy of gerrymandering) allowed them to demonstrate their rejection of democratic norms and to display their animus toward colleagues who were young, Black and Democratic.

As the AP has reported

A growing chorus is pushing back against Tennessee Republicans seeking to oust three House Democrats for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber, while the GOP has previously resisted removing its own members even when weighing criminal allegations.

Most recently, the Republican-controlled Statehouse declined to take action against a member accused of sexual misconduct, as well as those who have faced indictments or came under pressure for liking nearly nude social media posts.

Ah–but those members were White Republicans.

The Hill interviewed one of the two legislators, Justin Jones of Nashville, who said his race played a role in his expulsion from the state House on Thursday.

“I basically had a member call me an uppity Negro,” Jones, who is Black, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid after the 72-25 vote that expelled him….

“What we saw in Tennessee yesterday was an attack on democracy and very overt racism, as you can see that the two youngest Black lawmakers were kicked out, but our colleague, my dear sister, Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was not,” he said. “And we see clearly, the nation has seen clearly what is going on in Tennessee.”

What this incident very clearly underlines is the critical importance of systemic reform. It isn’t enough to elect better people–although that would certainly be helpful.

We need to reform the institutions that are not working properly. We can start with the Supreme Court, which has declined to notice that gerrymandering is incompatible with fair elections. The recent confirmation that Clarence Thomas’ corruption extends well beyond his refusal to recuse from cases implicating his wife’s political activities should provide a wake-up call.

Then we can move on to the Electoral College….