Tennessee Three — minus one— expelled: Republicans remove all doubt that they oppose democracy

Between climate strikes and gun safety demonstrations, we are living in the heyday of children’s protests, in ways unseen since Mother Jones led an army of children to protest child labor at the beginning of the 20th century. While it’s been drowned out by the coverage of Donald Trump’s Manhattan arrest, protests in Nashville, Tennessee in recent days have been eye-popping in both their intensity and the age of the participants. A sea of children, some elementary school age, have repeatedly flooded the Capitol to demand better gun safety laws after a recent school shooting left six people murdered, three of whom were small children. Gun deaths of children have climbed 50% in the past two years, making it the number one cause of death for people under 18

The child protesters are both peaceful and enjoy popular support, even in the red state of Tennessee. (Recent polling shows a strong majority of Tennessee parents want red flag laws and background checks.) However, Tennessee Republicans were clearly offended at the very concept of having to face their own constituents, especially such young members of the public. The Republican Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton compared the protest, which caused no injuries or property damage, as “equivalent, maybe worse” of the insurrection at the national Capitol on January 6, 2021.  

As usual with Republicans, every accusation is a confession.

It is not the peaceful protesters in Nashville who are aligned with the fascistic forces that stormed the Capitol on January 6. It’s Sexton and other Republicans. They immediately went on to prove this true by holding a vote to expel three members of the state’s Democratic caucus for daring to agree with the protesters. To add insult to injury, the Republicans eventually decided to only throw out the two Black members while leaving in the white one, underscoring how much the GOP war on democracy is fundamentally about white supremacy.

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Republicans offered a thin pretext for expelling state representatives Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson, who have been dubbed the “Tennessee Three” by progressive activists. Republicans accuse the three of breaking the legislature’s decorum rules by chanting alongside the protesters. (Johnson was apparently saved from expulsion because she apologized.) Exactly no one believes this excuse.

This is just the latest, and one of the starkest, examples of how Republicans across the country have, under the leadership of Donald Trump, flat out rejected democracy. They may be using the tool of bureaucratic power instead of violence, but they share the same beliefs as the January 6 insurrectionists: Only Republicans are legitimate Americans, and Democratic voters — especially if they are people of color — should have no say in choosing their own leaders. 

The Tennessee vote is part of a larger trend of Republicans becoming more unapologetic by the day about their opposition to democracy. Republicans in Oklahoma censured their nonbinary Democratic colleague last month for aiding a protest at the state capitol. In Florida, Democratic state lawmakers were charged this week with trespassing on the state capitol after protesting Republicans’ newly-passed 6-week abortion ban. 

Republicans see the voters as an enemy to be defeated. 

Even when Trump was attempting a coup, he hid behind conspiracy theories about a “stolen” election, to prop up the illusion that he supports a democratic system. But now that fig leaf is being tossed aside. Just last week, when debating a bill that would make it easier for legal voters to cast ballots in Minnesota, Republican state representative Matt Bliss complained that the bill “brings us closer to a democracy, which, you know, that’s not a good thing.” 

On Tuesday, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz beat the Trump-linked candidate Dan Kelly for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in a race that drew national attention precisely because democracy in Wisconsin is on the line. It’s not just that Kelly was likely to throw out the results of a 2024 presidential election if President Joe Biden beats Trump. It’s that the state is so badly gerrymandered that Democrats cannot win a legislative majority, no matter how many more votes they get than Republicans. In 2018, for instance, Democrats got 53% of the votes but only 36% of the seats in the state legislature. Protasiewicz, who won by a 10-point margin, explicitly campaigned by promising to restore democracy to the state. 

She may not get a chance.

Already, Republicans in the state legislature are considering impeaching Protasiewicz, using their illegitimately obtained power to shield themselves further from the will of the voters. They’re putting even less effort than the Tennessee Republicans into crafting a pretext. Republican Assemblyman Dan Knodl made vague noises about “corrupt” lawmakers, without bothering to explain why Protasiewicz would qualify. But we all know the reason: Protasiewicz is a pro-choice, pro-democracy judge. That renders her illegitimate in the eyes of Republicans. 

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During the 2022 midterms, many Democratic candidates shied away from talking about the Republican threat to democracy, fearing that the issue is too process-oriented to appeal to voters. Whether that’s true or not, moves like the expulsion of the Tennessee Democrats are taking the democracy issue out of the realm of abstraction and showcasing exactly why Republicans have taken this anti-democratic turn: their arguments are losers.

Republican views on everything from climate change to reproductive rights are increasingly unpopular with the voters. Rather than moderate their policies to appeal to more people, however, Republicans are responding by following Trump’s lead: Looking for ways to keep voters from having a say. 

These actions are just an escalation of an already robust GOP war on democracy that has only gotten worse since January 6. It involves efforts to intimidate election officials until free and fair elections are impossible to conduct. It involves relentless gerrymandering and voter suppression. In states where voters have turned out for ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights, health care access, or the minimum wage, Republicans react by trying to take that process away entirely. Republicans see the voters as an enemy to be defeated. 

As I wrote yesterday for Salon, Republicans are having an especially rough time of it this month, as they are repeatedly reminded most Americans don’t support them. Most Americans want Trump to suffer legal consequences for his crimes. Most Americans want legal abortion, access to health care, and stronger gun safety laws. Most Americans think banning books is bad and drag queens are fun. Most Americans are repulsed by QAnon-linked nuts like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The strangest thing about the expulsion of the Tennessee Democrats is that it seems like an unwise move on its surface, as it only served to draw more national attention to the gun protests while reminding the public that Republicans are anti-democratic bullies. It makes more sense in light of the bad week that the MAGA movement had, between Trump’s indictment and the Wisconsin election. In a very real sense, the Tennessee Three are scapegoats. Their expulsion is a petty act of revenge from Republicans who refuse to accept the will of the voters. 


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