Snitching For Jesus

You really can’t make this stuff up.

A reader recently shared an article from Resolute Square, an interesting site of which I had not previously been aware.

The article was by American historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who studies fascism and authoritarianism, and it documented a telling–and extremely troubling–tactic being deployed by the far Right. In an echo of the Third Reich, these activists are encouraging students to become “informants.”

A bill that has been approved by the Tennessee House and Senate, for example, would encourage students and staff to “report professors who taught about the legacies of racism and slavery and other “divisive concepts” in their 2022 classes. Empowering students to police their instructors helps the state weed out people who they claim are “advancing political or social agendas,” in the words of Tennessee Republican State Rep. John Ragan.

Another example is something called “Professor Watchlist.” That site was founded in 2016 by Turning Point, one of the many Koch-funded organizations that litter the American political landscape. The Professor Watchlist encourages students to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The Professor Watchlist is one of several   surveillance efforts dedicated to compiling “instances of radical behavior among college professors.” What is especially chilling is that the site includes the phone number of that instructor’s college or university, to facilitate the inevitable calls to complain.

When I was teaching, I occasionally had a student who found lessons about the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State to be “liberal propaganda.” I can only imagine the other lectures that might trigger Professor Watchlist complaints, or the reactions of teachers and professors to such monitoring. As Ben-Ghiat points out,

In an authoritarian state, there are few figures more feared and despised than informers. Ordinary people are paid by the government to monitor their compatriots and report on dissident speech or behavior at work, sports stadiums, grocery stores, bars and buses, and in classrooms. The anonymity of informers is key to their success in helping the state to break bonds of solidarity and trust among people and create a climate of suspicion, fear, and hostility. Not knowing who the informers are means that anyone could be monitoring you at any time.

One outcome of this psychological pressure is widespread self-censorship, which is a survival strategy for those living in regimes and makes the state’s job of indoctrination much easier. Both propaganda and silence feature in authoritarian campaigns to retrain minds, emotions, and behaviors. Some ideas must be repeated obsessively in the media and daily life, and other ideas must ideally be no longer heard at all in public —self-censorship factors in here.

The essay recounts the role of informers in Nazi Germany and in Mussolini’s Italy, and notes that educational institutions and the people who work within them are always high on the list for scrutiny when authoritarianism is growing.

From the recruitment of informers to the expulsion of dissidents, what happens on campus reflects and often anticipates larger transformations as authoritarianism takes hold….

The Republican assault on educators in America who expose students to ideals of peace, equality, justice, and compassion and the history of righteous struggle continues a trajectory that dates back to the Fascist era. Whether in Tennessee or New York City, encouraging students to become informers as a means of intimidating professors into censoring themselves is part of a calculated plan to erode democratic models of education and reward authoritarian models of social relations. History is clear on the destruction that ensues when societies take this path.

The White Christian Nationalists who are frantically fighting modernity and cultural change are pulling out all the stops. I am (relatively) confident that they are fighting a losing battle, but the ability of MAGA Republicans representing a largely rural population to cling to power is distorting the democratic process and impeding rational governance.

Worse, as that Christian Nationalist movement suffers defeats, a not-insignificant faction is turning to violence. Another post to the Resolute Square site points out that violence is the hallmark of authoritarian and fascist movements –and that we are seeing the “condoning, encouragement, incitement, and escalation of political violence as an acceptable means of political expression.” January 6th was a vivid example, and it is unlikely to be the only one.

We sure do live in interesting times.


It’s Not Just Tennessee

In the wake of heightened attention to Tennessee, triggered by that state legislature’s expulsion of two young Black Democratic members, Politico ran an article examining the increasingly wide rural/urban divide in that state.

Nashville, Tennessee has been booming. It surpassed Austin, Texas, to take the top spot as the Wall Street Journal’s “hottest job market” of 2022. According to research from the Greater Nashville Technology Council, Middle Tennessee’s tech job growth grew by over 50 percent between 2015 and 2020. The “Silicon Valley of the South,” as Nashville has been called, accounts for some 40 percent of the GDP of the entire state. It’s a draw for talent and industry, a boon to the state’s coffers and a cultural gem of the American South.

So why does Tennessee seem so hostile to its own capital city — and greatest economic engine?

That same question could be asked about Indiana’s legislature, which has long been hostile to Indianapolis, despite the fact that the Circle City is very clearly the economic engine of the Hoosier state. For that matter, as the Politico article pointed out, this urban/rural divide is happening all over the country, at every level of government, “in which the preferences of voters often filter through representative bodies whose lopsided majorities don’t really represent the electorate of the state around them.”

Time for yours truly, the broken record: The legislative dominance of rural priorities is due to gerrymandering.

I have written before about the cultural differences that have exacerbated hostilities between rural and urban areas. Rural residents tend to hold more traditional values, to be more conservative and much more Republican, while in today’s America, every urban area over 500,000 is Blue on those ubiquitous political maps. The political divide  exacerbates the cultural divide, and both lead to an increase in hostility between rural and urban residents.

Economic factors also play a role. A large number of rural areas have experienced economic decline in recent years, with fewer job opportunities and shrinking populations.

The differing interests of rural and urban areas ought to lead to legislative compromises. That doesn’t happen, because– thanks to gerrymandering–rural voters exercise disproportionate electoral power. The result is a legislative super-majority that skews even further Right than its rural constituency–and disdains democratic norms and federalist divisions of authority.

As a CNN article reports,

From Florida and Mississippi to Georgia, Texas and Missouri, an array of red states are taking aggressive new steps to seize authority over local prosecutors, city policing policies, or both. These range from Georgia legislation that would establish a new statewide commission to discipline or remove local prosecutors, to a Texas bill allowing the state to take control of prosecuting election fraud cases, to moves by Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Missouri Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey to dismiss from office elected county prosecutors who are Democrats, and a Mississippi bill that would allow a state takeover of policing in the capital city of Jackson.

These efforts by Red states to seize authority over law enforcement in their Blue cities is being fed by two recent, powerful trends.

One is the increased tendency of red states to override the decisions of those blue metros on a wide array of issues – on everything from minimum wage and family leave laws to environmental regulations, mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even recycling policies for plastic bags. The other is the intensifying political struggle over crime that has produced an intense pushback against the demands for criminal justice reform that emerged in the nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

That pushback against crime has a prominent racial component. Overwhelmingly White rural areas–and the Republicans they elect–want to empower police and reduce oversight that they believe impedes effective policing; prosecutors and other politicians in urban areas want to address racial bias in their criminal justice systems, and ensure that their systems are operating on a level playing field.

That particular divide motivated Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement immediately after the jury verdict that he intended to pardon Daniel Perry, who was convicted of intentionally murdering a Black Lives Matter protester. (The jury that convicted Perry hadn’t seen a document that the judge subsequently unsealed, sharing Perry’s references to Black protesters as “monkeys,” and musing about “hunting Muslims in Europe.”)

None of this intended to suggest that rural Americans are all racists, or that all urban dwellers are racially progressive. In fact, the Politico article points out that Republicans representing rural areas tend to be well to the right of their rural constituents on many issues, including guns.

The problem is the systemic distortion that operates to empower the most resentful cohorts of rural voters, who then elect extremists willing to kill their state’s urban “golden goose.”

Resentment isn’t logical.


Tennessee, Clarence Thomas And The Corruption Of American Democracy

Question: What do Clarence Thomas and the Republican legislators in Tennessee have in common?  Answer: They both epitomize the corruption of American democracy–a corruption that has led to a precipitous decline in public confidence in America’s governing institutions.

Several media outlets have reported on recent polling from Gallup that shows trust in the judicial branch at record lows. Only 47 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the federal judiciary– a drop of 20 percentage points from two years earlier. When asked about the Supreme Court, it was worse:  58 percent disapproved of the high court’s performance.

Those numbers are unlikely to improve following the most recent disclosures about  Justice Thomas and his “dear friend” Harlan Crowe. The initial revelations about Thomas’ acceptance of luxurious trips were stunning enough, but the Justice’s argument that he hadn’t needed to report them since they were just “hospitality”–while unconvincing–left him some rhetorical wiggle-room.

The latest revelations don’t.

This time, Thomas directly received money from Crow — perhaps in excess of the market value of the Chatham County, Ga., properties that Crow purchased from Thomas and his kin. This is no longer about receiving “personal hospitality.” It’s about a financial transaction between Thomas and a GOP donor who has also subsidized his vacations.

There is no doubt that the sale of personal real estate to Crow should have been reported on the justice’s financial disclosure form for 2014, and there is no excuse for failing to do so. The most logical explanation is that Thomas, whose relationship with Crow had already been the subject of unflattering news reports, wanted to keep it from public view.

The linked article also notes  that Thomas has failed to report his wife’s considerable income from Rightwing organizations–although the law clearly requires  that income to be reported.

Inescapable bottom line: Clarence Thomas is corrupt, and his judicial decisions are compromised.

Then there is the emerging information about the Tennessee legislature–information that probably would not have been uncovered or widely disseminated had that body not over-reacted to a breach of House decorum by expelling two young Black Democrats.

Democracy Docket has taken a deeper dive into that gerrymandered legislature’s  disdain for representative democracy. Tennessee, like Indiana, has a Republican super-majority–courtesy of gerrymandering–that routinely acts to disempower state Democrats.

Some examples:

Tennessee’s Democratic cities have come under a coordinated attack from lawmakers. In March, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a law that forces the Nashville Metro Council to reduce its membership by half. Two lawsuits were filed challenging the law and on April 10, a Tennessee court temporarily blocked portions of the law while litigation continues.

After the expulsion of Pearson, GOP legislators threatened to withdraw funding from important projects in Memphis’ Shelby County if Pearson was reappointed.

In the latest round of redistricting, the Legislature divided Davidson County, home to Nashville, into three separate districts, dismantling the city’s Democratic-held seat. The lawmakers also approved state legislative districts that entrenched Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. (Notably, the recent expulsions were only possible because of GOP supermajority control.)

Tennessee denies voting rights to over 470,000 citizens with one of the strictest (and most complicated) felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States. The state disenfranchises 21% of its Black voting-age population, the highest percentage in the country.

Tennessee has restrictive voting laws, leading to a low democracy tally by the Movement Advancement Project. Instead of improving voting access, the Legislature’s priorities have included laws requiring state and local officials to consult with the legislative leadership before changing certain state election laws and prohibiting election offices from accepting any private grant for election administration.

And we wonder why Americans no longer trust our political institutions…why so many of us have moved from skepticism to cynicism.

Political trust is generally described as citizens’ confidence in their political institutions. As political scientists repeatedly warn, that trust is an important component and indicator of political legitimacy; its erosion is not something to be taken lightly.

As I used to tell my students, an enormous number of American laws depend upon voluntary compliance by citizens–everything from filing taxes to obeying traffic signals. The ability of the authorities to catch and punish scofflaws depends upon the fact that the rule-breakers are relatively few. When citizens no longer trust that those in power are following the rules, rising numbers of them will feel justified in breaking those rules as well.

And it’s all inter-related

A properly functioning Supreme Court would have outlawed the rampant gerrymandering that produced Tennessee’s –and other state’s–rogue legislature.

As NASA might put it: Houston, we have a problem.


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….


It’s About More Than Banning Books And Distorting History

Anyone who hasn’t been marooned on a desert island or hiding in a cave for the past few years (options that sound increasingly appealing, actually…) has been inundated with reports of the unrelenting attacks on public school boards, curriculum, gay and transgender students, and the teachers and administrators who dare to stand up for any of them.

We shouldn’t get distracted by the purported targets of these attacks. The specific charges are monumentally phony–the actual aim is to dismantle American public education.

It’s tempting to respond to the absolute idiocy, for example, of claims that the schools are teaching “Critical race theory”–to point out that those leveling that charge couldn’t define CRT if their lives depended on it, and that it is explored (not “taught”) by legal researchers.

It’s equally tempting to point out that the parents “testifying” at school board meetings (actually, threatening school board members) are overwhelmingly the same parents who fail to attend parent-teacher conferences or otherwise involve themselves in the details of their kids’ educations (and those are the parents who actually have children in the system.)

And the effort to ban books, or remove them from the curriculum or the school libraries is ludicrous at a time when virtually all young people carry with them a device that connects them to a vast and dangerous world their parents cannot control.

The real goal of these efforts is to undermine support for the nation’s public schools, in order to make it easier to privatize them. As an article from Common Dreams began

When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities—government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire—what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools”—with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies.

Today, that privatization movement is alive and pushing ahead, with Republican legislators in 16 states actively pushing bills to create or expand school vouchers and/or charter schools that are part of that movement.

The author then interviewed a lobbyist who had worked for the privatization movement; it’s worth clicking through and reading what a former “insider” has to say.

A more recent column in the New York Times, written by a resident of Tennessee, explains why the effort to remove “Maus” from the curriculum is the “least of our worries.” She reviewed the persistent and ongoing efforts of conservatives “trying desperately to insulate their children from the modern world without quite understanding how the modern world works”–and she argued that the new bans–often aimed at books that had been used without incident for decades– are really “a response to contemporary political forces whose true motivation has nothing to do with books. What they really want is to destroy public education.”

She writes that she is willing to give many censorious parents the benefit of the doubt, in the sense that they are deeply conservative and believe they are “protecting” their children. But as she points out,

these parents are being manipulated by toxic and dangerous political forces operating at the state and national levels. Here in Tennessee, book bans are just a small but highly visible part of a much larger effort to privatize public schools and turn them into conservative propaganda centers. This crusade is playing out in ways that transcend local school board decisions, and in fact are designed to wrest control away from them altogether.

I don’t mean simply the law, passed last year, that limits how racism is taught in public schools across the state. I’m talking about an array of bills being debated in the Tennessee General Assembly right now. One would purge books considered “obscene or harmful to minors” from school libraries across the state. Another would ban teaching materials that “promote, normalize, support or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” Yet another would prevent school districts from receiving state funding for undocumented students.

Most of all I’m talking about Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement, in his State of the State address last week, that he has approached Hillsdale College, a Christian institution in Michigan, to open 50 charter schools in Tennessee — Mr. Lee reportedly requested 100— that would follow a curriculum designed to make kids “informed patriots.” Not informed citizens; informed patriots, as conservative Christians define that polarizing term.

What the author calls–correctly–an “existential threat to public education”  is part and parcel of the GOP’s effort to destroy democracy.

As the late political scientist Benjamin Barber explained, public education is constitutive of a public; without it,  democracy is simply not feasible.

To today’s GOP, that’s a feature, not a bug.