Organizing Our Way Out of Tennessee’s Democracy Crisis

Organizing Our Way Out of Tennessee’s Democracy Crisis

Organizing Our Way Out of Tennessee’s Democracy Crisis

Reformers seeking to undo the state’s drift into authoritarianism have to adopt a both-and strategy to repair democracy from the ground up.

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On Monday, March 27, a shooter opened fire at Nashville’s Covenant School, killing six, including three 9-year-olds. Most people have by now seen the heartbreaking coverage. As the country’s 15th mass school shooting, the horrific massacre at Covenant felt all too familiar to Tennesseans, if closer to home than before.

Here’s what felt new: Tennesseans who had managed to ignore state lawmakers’ impact on their lives, or who had checked out of a process that seemed built to ignore them, were suddenly able to draw a direct line between the shooting and the legislature—literally. On April 18, more than 6,000 of us formed a human chain between the capitol and the hospital where the victims of the shooting were taken.

More Tennesseans are dialed in now. That means many of us were watching when the legislature voted to expel two Black Democratic lawmakers who took part in a protest to agitate for meaningful gun control. Newly engaged residents of the Volunteer State asked themselves, Can they really do that? And embattled supporters of social progress in our state again braced ourselves for the bewildered lamentation from out-of-state friends and family members: What’s the matter with Tennessee?

We’ve faced the challenge of explaining the right-wing ideological capture of our state at plenty of intervals in the recent past, but the expulsion vote was a new watershed: a punitive action that plainly sought to repress dissent on the part of reformers. For all the shock that greeted it, however, the expulsion vote was actually the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of disfranchisement, voter suppression, and gerrymandering in the Volunteer State. To begin undoing this ugly legacy, we will have to take full measure of how we got here in the first place. And we will need to engage the tens of thousands of Tennesseans who are waking up to the truth that our democracy is at a breaking point.

An encouraging start came just days after the legislature voted by a two-thirds margin to expel Nashville lawmaker Justin Jones and his Memphis colleague Justin J. Pearson. Seizing on the movement energy of the protests that greeted the expulsion debate, local lawmakers in Nashville and Memphis called emergency meetings and swiftly returned Jones and Pearson to their seats.

Overnight, Jones and Pearson became heroes in the battle to reclaim and expand America’s multiracial democracy. Jones sang with Joan Baez in an airport. Vice President Kamala Harris made a last-minute trip to Nashville and praised “The Justins” in the same breath with civil rights icons John Lewis and Diane Nash. The legislators who had attempted to silence these activists had instead catapulted them to stardom.

Now, however, comes the hard part: harnessing the national recognition lavished on Jones and Pearson to confront the grim conditions that spawned the shameful expulsion vote in the first place. Over the past political generation, Tennessee has decisively shed our upper-South image as a bastion of moderation and pragmatism. Ours is no longer a polity that cultivates compromise-minded leaders such as Howard Baker and Al Gore; even less is it the closely divided state that saw Republicans and Democrats take turns in the governor’s mansion from 1970 to 2018.

Tennessee’s pendulum may have swung too far toward autocracy this time. But it will not swing back to democracy on its own. That’s because voter suppression robbed our state of any semblance of genuine political gravity years ago.

Voters in Tennessee stagger under the weight of suppressive laws that dragged our “ease of voting” ranking from 10th in 1996 to 48th in 2018. These laws allow us to gain admission to the voting booth with handgun carry permits, but not with state-issued student IDs. They disenfranchise more people with a felony conviction than 49 other states, using a draconian system that prohibits more than 470,000 Tennesseans, including more than one in five Black adults, from voting.

And Tennessee’s legislature hasn’t just made it hard to exercise your lawful right to vote; it has made it criminal to try. After the Tennessee Black Voter Project turned in more than 90,000 voter-registration applications in 2018, our state passed legislation that criminalized voter-registration drives until a federal judge stepped in to overturn it. Our laws still make it a felony for us to send someone—an elderly parent, perhaps, or a student away at college—a link to the state’s absentee ballot application form. (If you’re thinking that such strictures seem designed to keep out any Tennessean looking to get civically engaged, you’re right.)

Tennessee’s suppressive laws have done more than reduce our ballot access: In many cases, they have removed our representation altogether. Last year, a backroom gerrymandering scheme eliminated Nashville’s congressional seat. Among the three districts now purportedly representing Nashville’s population is one that consigns many residents—including the area surrounding the Covenant School—to the legislative care of GOP Representative Andy Ogles. He lives in Culleoka—about 60 miles from Nashville—and sent out a Christmas card featuring his family holding assault rifles.

To paraphrase what civil rights leaders here have long said, Tennessee is not a red state; we’re a suppressed state. That suppression has created a monster: an unchecked GOP supermajority in the state legislature. More than half of the legislature’s Republican members ran uncontested in 2022, and any opposition most of them faced was nominal. They know they need only to play to their far-right base to keep their jobs. Operating largely without oversight, these lawmakers created a broken government that, at least until now, was nearly impossible to hold accountable.

To begin the painstaking work of winning our state back for democracy, we must adopt a sustained both/and approach: We must repair the broken machinery of fair representation in Tennessee as we work to gain more incremental legislative and electoral victories. We must mobilize grassroots workers and supply them with desperately needed resources and organizing tools. And at the same time, we must start using the power we’ve left on the table for far too long.

We don’t need saviors from outside the state to do it. Most of the nation got its first exposure to our homegrown talent over the past few weeks, but community organizers—including Jones and Pearson—have been at work here for years. They have mobilized Black and Brown voters and strategically partnered with the Republican supermajority to make progress where progress is possible—as with a recent bill expanding access to business licenses in our state’s burgeoning immigrant community.

But Tennessee lacks the sort of robust progressive ecosystem that other states—particularly states that still harbor a competitive two-party system—enjoy. When I started our state’s only progressive think tank here in 2017, Tennessee became the 47th state to have one. My first call with a potential national funder told me, all too bluntly, that I’d be facing a long road ahead: “Oh, honey,” she said. “Nobody cares about Tennessee.”

In the years since, Tennesseans have begun to build some of the infrastructure that has been critical to wins in states such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Wisconsin. I sometimes find myself daydreaming about the good we could do with the level of outside funding those states enjoy.

Now, that prospect is something more than a daydream—but it won’t be realized without a great deal of concerted effort. It’s important, first off, to turbocharge the work advocates have been doing. At the same time, however, we need to blaze some new trails. That’s why I wrote the Democracy Protection Playbook—a manual outlining how to make progress in red states without having to bang your head against the walls of the state legislature.

At the heart of this strategy is a mandate to leverage a battery of local and federal voter protections that have been hiding in plain sight. The decentralized nature of the US election system means that local officials have a great deal of power to drive voter turnout and increase ballot access. Cities can, for example, follow in Atlanta’s footsteps by requiring official communications—from water bills to the 311 information hotline — to include voter-registration information. They can also implement laws requiring high schools to host annual voter-registration drives—measures that are largely unenforced but extremely common in red states. They can follow the lead of officials in Houston and open jail-based polling places to allow detainees—the large majority of whom are eligible to vote—to cast their ballots.

In many red states, hyper-local work like this, which state legislatures can’t preempt or overrule, represents the best potential for progress. This approach has been critical to progressive organizing and electoral successes in formerly deep-red Georgia, and it can be replicated in other local jurisdictions.

New federal tools also offer hope. A 2021 executive order can boost voter-registration rates in historically disenfranchised communities. It relies on a sometimes-forgotten clause in the National Voter Registration Act—“the Motor Voter Act” requiring state departments of motor vehicles to register voters—that allows states to designate other federal offices within their borders to act as voter-registration agencies.

This executive order has real red-state potential. Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state has already announced a partnership with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to register voters at VA health care facilities in the state. While no one tool in the playbook is a silver bullet, each is capable of driving change in places like Tennessee, where progress might otherwise seem impossible.

The nation would do well not to take its eyes off Tennessee again. As the hard right has consolidated statewide power here, our state has become a testing ground for some of the most extreme and reactionary legislation in the country. Laws that allow people to carry concealed guns in public without a license or firearms training came to Tennessee years ago and are now marching through other GOP-led state legislatures. Tennessee has also passed more laws targeting the LGBTQ community than any other state. And now, as the nation watched, the Republican supermajority tested the limits of its power to behave like an autocracy.

We would be naive to think they’ll be shamed into anything resembling moderation. Recently leaked audio gives us a sense of how personally they are taking Tennesseans’ calls for reform. One lawmaker caught on tape complained that Democrats “trash us as racists” without cause; he also proclaimed that “the Democrats are not our friends.” And we know all too well how this animosity is likely to play out: The last time local Democrats pushed back against them—when the Nashville Metro Council turned down a potential opportunity to host the Republican National Committee’s 2024 convention—the GOP supermajority retaliated with legislation that cut the size of the council in half.

The recent turn in Tennessee politics has clarified the stakes in our struggle for justice and democracy. As we continue battling the plague of gun violence here, we also must fight the prime force that empowers it: a system of voter suppression that allows the elected supermajority to operate without accountability to the people it purports to represent.

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