John Krull commentary: The Tennessee Three’s lesson about government

Just as night follows day, political power unjustly acquired inevitably will become political power unjustly exerted.

The eyes of the nation and the world these days are on Tennessee’s House of Representatives. That chamber voted to expel two members, Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, and fell one vote short of doing so with Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville.

Jones and Pearson are Black. Johnson is white.

The three took part in a protest focused on the Tennessee legislature’s refusal to consider any new gun legislation after a mass shooting in which three small children and three educators were murdered. They took to the floor of the House chamber with a bullhorn as more than a thousand people gathered at the Tennessee statehouse.

That was a violation of the House’s rules of decorum.

Only two House members in Tennessee history had been expelled before this—in both cases because the representatives had been convicted of breaking the law, not the chamber’s procedural rules.

Why did the House’s leaders respond to this protest in such a draconian fashion?

There are two answers to that question—and the answers are linked.

The first answer: because they could.

Republicans in the Tennessee House have a supermajority, a control of the chamber so lopsided it denies the minority party basic procedural protections.

This supermajority is the product of skillful gerrymandering, the dark science of slicing and dicing legislative maps to reward the party in power with more seats than an honest accounting would allow and relegating the party out of power to the periphery.

Gerrymandering warps not just the legislative process but the perceptions of those who hold office. Because the system is rigged to put lawmakers in contact only with constituents who agree with them, they tend not to hear contrary viewpoints—or even consider differing opinions to be worthy of consideration.

Because the Tennessee House, like many Republican-controlled legislative bodies in this nation, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, the fact that there were citizens of the state concerned that children were being murdered struck them as an unwelcome intrusion.

Which brings us to answer number two.

When legislators have that much unjustly acquired power, their response to any challenge to their authority is to try to suppress the dissenting voices.

Remember, the Republicans in the Tennessee House had all the votes they needed to prevent any gun reform legislation from going anywhere.

But stopping any new gun laws wasn’t enough.

Those Republicans needed to make clear that their voices were the only ones that needed to be heard, their interests the only ones that needed to be heeded, their concerns the only ones that needed to be considered.

It wasn’t enough for them to win.

The other side had to be not just defeated but silenced.

This is not a problem peculiar to Tennessee.

Several years ago, Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action, a group concerned about gun violence, testified before a committee meeting of the Indiana House of Representatives.

The NRA’s chief Indiana water carrier, Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, used the occasion to bully and berate Watts, who lives in Zionsville. He was not disciplined in any way for chastising a citizen who came before her state government to express a concern.

Lucas behaved the way he did because he could and because he wanted to silence any voice that disagreed with his.

He since has gone on to commit other offenses against basic decency and legislative decorum without facing any meaningful consequences for his misbehavior.

Lucas and his fellow Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly. Those supermajorities, as is the case in Tennessee, are the product of aggressive gerrymandering campaigns.

Governments that are not designed to reflect the will of the people start by ignoring the will of the people—and then often graduate to thwarting the will of the people.

In Indiana, a member of a gerrymandered House did his best to humiliate a woman for exercising her First Amendment right to petition government.

In Tennessee, a gerrymandered House of Representatives tossed out two Black members so the chamber wouldn’t have to acknowledge what is, for the majority party, the uncomfortable truth that many people are worried about gun violence.

Just like night follows day, political power unjustly acquired became political power unjustly exerted.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.

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