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What Tennessee tells us about democracy in America's states

Supporters raise signs as Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8, 2020. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters raise signs as Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8, 2020. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s democracy at the federal level. Then there’s the states, once called the laboratory of democracy.

Political scientist Jake Grumbach decided to measure the health of democracy at the state level. Take for example, Tennessee.

“Do Tennessee’s democratic institutions allow for the broad participation of Tennesseans? That’s a really important part of democracy,” he says.

Grumbach says democracy in Tennessee is in trouble.

“The state legislature has been on a steady … march for the last decade of preempting overturning local laws,” Sekou Franklin says.

“They’ve targeted cities and prevented us from establishing an affordable housing policy. Local officials are reluctant to do anything about it because they feel that it will be overturned by the state.”

Today, On Point: Tennessee and a case study of the health of democracy in America’s state legislatures.


Blaise Gainey, political reporter for Nashville Public Radio.

Sekou Franklin, professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. Author of Losing Power: African Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics and After the Rebellion: Social Movement Activism and Popular Mobilization among the Post-Civil Rights Generation.

Gino Bulso, Republican state representative representing District 61.

Also Featured

Jake Grumbach, political scientist at the University of Washington and author of Laboratories Against Democracy.

Greta McClain, executive director of Silent No Longer Tennessee.

Sheila Clemmons Lee, led an effort to establish a Community Oversight Board in Nashville.

Interview Highlights

On the kind of democracy we see at work in the Tennessee State Assembly

Blaise Gainey: “The Republicans have a supermajority, so it doesn’t really matter what the Democrats want to say on bills. The Republicans can still choose to pass it or not. But he’s just saying, let our voices be heard. You know, we all represent 70,000 some odd, you know, citizens and they didn’t elect us to come up here and sit silent. And so I think, you know, what you see is the Republicans trying to, you know, just do what they like, instead of allowing Democrats to at least be able to speak up.”

On expelling two fellow representatives for exercising their rights to the first amendment

Gino Bulso: “I also agree that both of these representatives and a third who was retained only by only one vote, all deserved to be expelled because of what they had done. Never before in the history of our state, which goes all the way back to 1796, a period of 227 years, had anyone in the legislature actually conducted a mutiny on the House floor where you break the Constitution, which forbids members from engaging in disorderly behavior and you break the rules of the House, and you silence the voices of 96 other members by going up with a bullhorn and trying to incite a crowd.

“They had no right to do that. And what we did in Tennessee was to establish a precedent that if you as a representative, Republican or Democrat, take it upon yourself to violate our rules and to violate our Constitution, you will be expelled. That is the perfect punishment for what they did. They were properly expelled. And if anyone does that again, while I’m in the General Assembly, I will be privileged to draft a resolution to expel them again, because that is not the type of conduct that we tolerate. It’s not the type of respect that the institution deserves. And the idea that they had a right to do this is something I completely disagree with.”

On an authoritarian streak in Tennessee

Sekou Franklin: “There is a lack of democracy and there is an authoritarian streak that really is anchoring Tennessee, primarily anchored by a supermajority in the legislature. And a supermajority legislature is the kind of one variable that’s missing in the discussion is the political extremism that is really the muscle behind the supermajority, persons like Ronald Reagan. If he were alive today and were to run for the state legislature, probably couldn’t get elected. Definitely John Adams couldn’t get elected in Tennessee.

“And even some of the kind of founding, established kind of Republican Party leaders a decade or so ago, people … like Beth Harwell, Senator Bill Frist, Bob Corker, those are persons that are the most prominent voices in the Republican Party. They probably could not get elected in the Tennessee state legislature today because the level of political extremism is so multi-layered in terms of what’s guiding the party.

“So in Tennessee, you know, what’s different from Tennessee than, say, Texas and Florida is that in Texas and Florida, the governors have a muscular influence, and they have kind of a publicly facing outsized kind of influence, DeSantis and Abbott. Whereas in Tennessee, we kind of have an inverted process where the legislature has effectively more power and more kind of publicly facing power than the governor does. The governor is almost secondary. And the legislature, in many respects, is at the top of the mountain.”

On the supermajority in the Tennessee legislature overturning local will

Sekou Franklin: “I think the motivation is they may see these cities as out of control. As needing to be disciplined, there is a retribution politics that’s central to this. In the case of Nashville, in particular, Nashville City Council … decided to reject the Republican National Conventions’ attempt to come to Nashville 2024. So the state legislature engaged in a broader retribution campaign, targeting the Sports Authority, airport authority. And they also passed a bill cutting our city council … in Nashville in half, and giving Nashville Council less than two months to draw new districts. Fortunately, the courts intervened in that respect.

“So part of it is retribution politics. Part of it also is that in these local fights, particularly around economic justice issues such as wages and policing, what happens is that if the opposition loses, let’s say, for example, if the business community loses or if the Fraternal Order of Police loses, then they have another avenue to overturn local democracy efforts. And oftentimes through back channels and kind of off the grid moves, they oftentimes will form alliances with lawmakers to overturn local laws that are supported by the majority of the people. So there’s many different reasons for this as to why preemption … in Tennessee is not the only own only a state that is experiencing preemption. We’re finding that just to be the case.”

On racial issues in Tennessee

Sekou Franklin: “Race is a part of it, race may be a significant factor, but there are other factors, too, as well. So one example is that in Tennessee, where Republicans really build a supermajority are places that are lily white. But they are also rural communities that are largely insulated. And what lawmakers can run and do in those particular areas is run what some call segregated campaigns. But these are also areas and parts of rural Tennessee that are also in economically distressed communities as well. So oftentimes race is part of it, but it’s not the only part of its geography. Here in Tennessee in particular, African Americans are concentrated in maybe three or four areas throughout the state.

“So in those other areas throughout the state and then the super majority, Republicans in particular, could build out a surplus of voters or a constant supply of voters that could insulate them. Even when there’s a national attention focusing on democracy. They’re particularly insulated from attacks. … And then also there was, I would say, beginning about 15 years ago, in some of the interviews that we did for our research, some concern among Democrats that they weren’t developing good candidates to challenge Republicans in these areas as well. So there was some also concern about fragmentation inside of the Democratic Party as well.”

On democracy in Tennessee

Sekou Franklin: “In Tennessee, for example, our state legislature has said we don’t want HIV/AIDS funding. … Maybe they’re considering possibly rejecting over $1 billion worth of federal aid. We don’t want Medicaid expansion that would have brought $20 Billion into this state, sort of pushing up against the federal government. And they’re also pushing down against multiracial cities or cities that are quite diverse.

“And in doing that, we’re finding this to be the case not just in Tennessee, but Florida, Texas. And it’s almost a network process in which state legislatures that are controlled by super majorities, along with governors, are doing this probably in lockstep with each other, probably as part of a larger strategy to say that, look, it doesn’t matter who becomes president United States, but we can create this kind of subnational process. And also the backdrop of this are two things.

“… The backdrop of this is, number one, you have a federal courts system that’s much more conservative and the federal courts are insulating state legislatures when they make these decisions … constitutionally in the federal court process. But I will say watching to see what’s also unique and different is that on a bureaucracy side, our constitutional officers, unlike Florida and Texas, our secretary of state … our attorney general’s office. They are not elected or appointed. And the state legislature has the muscular power in that appointment process.

“And those entities are also working to, at least from our research and from my perspective, undermine democracy as well. But yes, that’s what’s going on. So some of the lawmakers are like, we don’t care if the expulsion crisis is on CNN or MSNBC or The New York Times or it’s a national story. Right? Because we’re insulated. And these districts that are overwhelmingly white in which there’s very little traction in these districts, and also we’re linking up with other lawmakers in similar positions. And I’ll say this as my last comment.

“That’s why after the expulsion crisis, there was an audio leak of the Republican caucus talking about the expulsion. And one of the lawmakers … said in Tennessee, we have to stand our ground. As Tennessee goes, so does the Southeast. And so what they saw is basically Tennessee being a bulwark in this kind of subnational process for advancing their viewpoints, along with other southeastern states and red states, against a larger encroachment of civil rights and democracy and also the federal government.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.