Tennessee Republicans’ ruthless use of their state House supermajority to expel two young Black lawmakers for breaching decorum exposed a torrent of political forces that are transforming American politics at the grassroots.
The GOP action, after the lawmakers had led a gun control protest from the House floor in response to last week’s Nashville school shooting, created a snapshot of how two halves of a diversifying and increasingly self-estranged nation are being pulled apart.
A day of soaring tensions inside and outside the state House chamber thrust the Volunteer State into the national spotlight in an extraordinary political coda to the mass shooting in which six people, including three 9-year-olds, were gunned down.
The drama laid bare intense frustration among some voters at the failure to pass firearms reform – and the growing clash between Democrats from liberal cities and a Republican Party that is willing to use its rural conservative power base to curtail democracy. Given the national attention, the showdown could backfire on the GOP with voters who balk at its extremist turn. And it turned two lawmakers – whom most Americans had never heard of – into overnight heroes of the progressive movement.
The Democrats – Justin Pearson and Justin Jones – were thrown out of their seats in a move that effectively canceled out the votes of their tens of thousands of constituents, simply for infringing the rules of the chamber – an almost unheard of sanction across the country.
But a third Democrat – Gloria Johnson, a White woman who also joined the gun control protest – escaped expulsion after Republicans failed to muster the required two-thirds majority. The discrepancy raised suggestions of racial discrimination and made an acrimonious day even uglier.
Republicans said that the Democrats had interrupted the people’s business with their protest, arguing that democracy couldn’t work if lawmakers refused to abide by the rules. But the Democrats have long warned their voices are being silenced by the hardline GOP supermajority and accused Republicans of infringing their rights to free expression and dissent.
“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” Jones told Republican legislators on Thursday as he spoke before the House in his own defense.
At its most basic level, the clash underscored the utter polarization between Republicans and Democrats about how to respond to mass shootings, which pass with little or no significant action to prevent the endless sequence of such tragedies.
Although it did pass a measure intended to enhance school security, the Tennessee state House essentially decided to use its near unchecked power to protect its behavioral rules rather than take any action to make it harder for mass killers to get deadly weapons. In a deep-red state like Tennessee, this is not a surprise. But the fury and even desperation of lawmakers like Pearson and Jones and the hundreds of protesters at the state capitol on Thursday reflect increasing anger among the majority of Americans who want tougher gun restrictions but find their hopes dashed by Republican legislatures.
In Tennessee, that frustration over the endless deaths of innocents erupted into activism.
One protester, teacher Kevin Foster, said the aftermath of the Nashville school shooting had been “deeply, deeply painful.”
And he tearfully called on Tennessee legislators to do something to stop more school shootings. “Just listen to us, there is absolutely no reason you should have assault rifles available to citizens in the public. It serves absolutely no purpose and it brings death and destruction on children,” Foster told CNN’s Ryan Young.
The severe penalties meted out by the legislature for a rules infraction, which did not involve violence or incitement, also underscored another increasing trend – the radicalization of the Donald Trump-era Republican Party. Critics see the way the GOP is using its legislative majorities as an abuse of power that threatens the democratic rights of millions of Americans.
The Tennessee House has only rarely expelled members – and when it has, it’s for offenses like bribery or sexual infractions – so the treatment of Pearson and Jones, who had already had their committee assignments taken away, was regarded by Democrats as disproportionately harsh.
The expulsions looked like a party dispensing with opponents and positions it didn’t agree with – a perspective Pearson voiced when he accused the GOP of acting to suppress ideas it would prefer not to listen to and questions it wouldn’t answer.
“You just expelled a member for exercising their First Amendment rights!” he said.
Tennessee Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison told CNN his members were always firm in wanting the Democratic lawmakers expelled and rejected an alternative route through the House ethics committee. “The overwhelming majority, the heartbeat of this caucus, says ‘not on this House floor, not this way,’” he said. Faison added: “It is not possible for us to move forward with the way they were behaving in committee and on the House floor. There’s got to be some peace.”
Democrats did break the rules last week – they admitted to doing so and their actions, if adopted by every legislator, would make it impossible to maintain order and free debate. Jones, for instance, used a bullhorn to lead chants of protesters in the public gallery. But the question at issue is the appropriateness of the punishments and whether the GOP majority overreached.
One Republican, state Rep. Gino Bulso, said that Jones – with his dramatic self-defense in the well of the chamber on Thursday – had made the case for his ejection because he accused the House of acting dishonorably.
“He and two other representatives effectively conducted a mutiny on March the 30th of 2023 in this very chamber,” Bulso said. State House Speaker Cameron Sexton had previously compared the gun control protest to the mob attack by Trump’s supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
But this appeared an absurd analogy. While the protest in the Tennessee chamber did disrupt regular order, it wasn’t anti-democratic, nor was it designed to interrupt the transfer of power from one president to the next, like the Capitol riot briefly did. And the behavior of the three Democratic lawmakers, while irregular, was not that unusual in a riotous political age. US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and other Republicans, for instance, heckled President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address this year. And Trump this week attacked a New York judge as biased and singled out his family after becoming the first ex-president to be charged with a crime.
The racial backdrop of Thursday’s vote could not be ignored after Johnson was reprieved by a single vote. She told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that she believed race helped explain the differing outcomes.
“I think it is pretty clear. I am a 60-year-old White woman, and they are two young Black men,” Johnson said, adding that she thought the Republicans questioned Jones and Pearson in a demeaning way.
US Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, didn’t rule out the possibility that discrimination was behind the expulsion of Jones and Pearson but not Johnson.
“I am not saying race wasn’t (the reason) – but I haven’t looked at the numbers to see if gender might not have had a play in it, and also maybe some seniority, and also some folks that were on a committee with her,” Cohen told CNN’s Bianna Golodryga.
The question is especially acute since Pearson and Jones were arguing that their voices – and those of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans in the state’s diverse cities – were being silenced by a largely White Republican majority.
“I represent 78,000 people, and when I came to the well that day, I was not standing for myself,” Jones said. “I was standing for those young people … many of whom can’t even vote yet, many of whom are disenfranchised. But all of whom are terrified by the continued trend of mass shooting plaguing our state and plaguing this nation.”
Jones, from Nashville, and Pearson, from Memphis, are representative of a new generation of politically active Americans. Their background in activism and compelling rhetorical styles speak to a kind of politics that is more confrontational than the outwardly genteel but hardball power plays preferred by some of their older Republican colleagues in the legislature.
At times, the speeches by both lawmakers invoked the atmospherics of the civil rights movement and may augur a new brand of urgent activism by younger citizens – like the multi-racial crowd of protesters who greeted Pearson and Jones as heroes after they left the chamber.
The topic of the showdown – over infringements of the decorum of the state House – also had uncomfortable racial echoes as they implied, deliberately or not, that the two young Black Americans did not understand the proper way to behave in public life.
“It’s very scary for the nation to see what’s happening here. If I didn’t know that it was happening to me, I would think this was 1963 instead of 2023,” Jones told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
A growing trend of clashes between cities and rural areas
More broadly, Pearson and Jones also represent a cementing reality of the American political map in which growing liberal and racially diverse cities and suburbs are increasingly clashing with legislatures dominated by Republicans from more rural areas.
This dynamic is playing out on multiple issues – including abortion, crime and voting rights – in states like Georgia and Texas. In Florida, meanwhile, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is using his big reelection win and GOP control of both chambers of the state legislature to drive home a radical America First-style conservative agenda that he’s using as a platform for a possible presidential campaign. Some Republicans see similar trends in Democratic-majority California.
In Tennessee, as Democratic state House Rep. Joe Towns put it, the GOP used a nuclear option by deploying their supermajority to suppress the ability of minority Democrats to speak.
“You never use a sledgehammer to kill a gnat,” Towns said. “We should not go to the extreme of expelling our members for fighting for what many of the citizens want to happen, whether you agree with it or not.”
Pearson was specific in viewing his expulsion as being about far more than a thwarted gun control protest.
“We are losing our democracy to White supremacy, we are losing our democracy to patriarchy, we are losing our democracy to people who want to keep a status quo that is damning to the rest of us and damning to our children and unborn people,” he said.
The political crisis in Tennessee quickly got national attention.
Biden described the expulsions as “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent” and lambasted Republicans for not doing more to prevent school shootings.
“Americans want lawmakers to act on commonsense gun safety reforms that we know will save lives. But instead, we’ve continued to see Republican officials across America double down on dangerous bills that make our schools, places of worship, and communities less safe,” he said in a statement.
Republicans in Tennessee had their own political reasons for acting against the trio of Democratic lawmakers. But by making national figures of Pearson and Jones and by handing the White House a new example of GOP extremism, their efforts may have badly backfired.