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Three and Out

Thoughts on Tennessee.

Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville speaks during a vote to expel her from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Seth Herald/Getty Images)

I dislike “both sides” punditry but there’s no dodging it sometimes, especially in this era.

For instance, the biggest political story in America this week involves an embarrassing right-wing authoritarian who threatens the rule of law being indicted by a left-wing prosecutor on a legal theory that’s embarrassing and threatens the rule of law.

We’re not sending our best, to paraphrase said authoritarian.

Both-sides-ism tends toward the obnoxious because it’s usually deployed in bad faith to minimize the sins of one side. How many times have we heard populist Republicans try to whatabout Donald Trump’s coup attempt by noting that, in years prior, a few House Democrats also filed pro forma objections to counting the electoral votes in elections won by Republicans?

“Both sides” punditry should be avoided where possible. It can’t be in the case of the so-called “Tennessee 3.”

We begin with the law. Article II, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same offence;  and shall have all other powers necessary for a branch of the Legislature of a free State.” The most recent rules of order adopted by Tennessee’s House of Representatives empower the speaker to “preserve order and decorum” and require members who wish to speak to “rise, and respectfully address the chair and await the notice of the speaker.”

Here was the scene on the House floor on March 30, three days after the mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville.

Neither orderly, decorous, nor respectful.

The three members who commandeered the podium and led the chants for gun control were Democrats Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson. It’s unclear what each of them did for the duration of the 52 minutes that House business was disrupted but video from that day shows protests at the Capitol verging on threatening at times.

That ain’t January 6. No cops were beaten, no threats to hang the presiding official were heard, no attempts to thwart the peaceful transfer of power were made. House Speaker Cameron Sexton tried to spin what happened as “at least equivalent” to the insurrection but that only proves my point about both-sides-ism and bad faith.

Still, not a great scene. If you were a Republican legislator in the middle of that throng on your way back from the bathroom, your pulse would have quickened. There is, after all, a certain type of progressive who believes they have moral license to behave illiberally when their target is guilty of felony thoughtcrime, as we were reminded again in San Francisco just last night.

Following the chaos in Tennessee, House Republicans decided something must be done about the three Democrats who broke the rules to inflame the protest. For Justin Jones in particular, punishment would be a lifetime achievement award of sorts given that he’s been disrupting business at the Capitol since before he worked there.

Media coverage of the Tennessee 3’s behavior has been predictably saccharine because of the press’s sympathy for their cause and the irresistible narrative of two young nonwhite progressives standing up to a Southern state’s white conservative supermajority. (The soundbites about North Korea being more democratic than Tennessee are especially cute.) But there’s no question that Jones, Pearson, and Johnson must be punished. A legislature can’t function if members can hijack it with impunity anytime they feel strongly about an issue.

Rules were broken; further rulebreaking must be deterred; penalties therefore must be imposed. Sorry, Barack:

The people’s business can’t stop because a small faction in the legislative minority is frustrated that they don’t get to make the laws. If a group of Republican assemblymen took over the California House and were sanctioned for it, Obama would have no difficulty grasping that.

Sanctions in this case were, in fact, imposed. Jones, Pearson, and Johnson were stripped of their committee assignments and lost their access to the Capitol on weekends. Formal censure and a fine would have been in order, I think. But Republicans wanted to go further by expelling all three from the House. 

That’s what makes this a “both sides” story.

Expulsions do happen. In 2021 Oregon’s House expelled a Republican member who not only helped plan an armed incursion into the state capitol but physically held open a door to give the crowd assembled outside access to the building.

Expulsions are rare, however, and should be. When a legislator is expelled, it’s their constituents who are disenfranchised temporarily—200,000 of them in the case of Jones, Pearson, and Johnson. For all the heavy breathing this week by Tennessee Republicans about protecting democracy, democracy in the districts represented by the Tennessee 3 will be disrupted by the expulsions more substantially than floor business at the statehouse was on March 30.

The Tennessee House had expelled members before, a grand total of three times since the Civil War. Six were ousted in 1866 for trying to block ratification of the 14th Amendment, one was bounced in 1980 after being convicted of bribery, and another was jettisoned in 2016 following dozens of sexual harassment allegations. Tennessee’s legislature has seen lots of misconduct over the past 150 years, but expulsion has remained a high bar. Or had, until yesterday.

That was the House GOP’s first error. If you’re going to use the legislative death penalty, you had better first consider the relative severity of the many ethical offenses in the past that weren’t punished with execution. Jones came armed with reminders when he spoke before Thursday’s expulsion vote.

Suspicions that the penalty in this case was too draconian were heightened by the fact that two of the three who ran afoul of the white Republican majority, Jones and Pearson, are young African American men. Before the vote I felt relief that Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was also on the chopping block since her expulsion would reassure the public that there was no racial angle to the proceedings, at least.

But the joke was on me. Johnson narrowly defeated the effort to expel her. The two black Democrats were sent home.

Attorneys who spoke on Johnson’s behalf insisted there was a meaningful distinction between them, that Johnson had merely stood in solidarity at the podium on March 30 while Jones and Pearson disrupted floor proceedings by using a bullhorn. Johnson herself didn’t think much of that reasoning, though: “It might have to do with the color of our skin,” she told reporters when asked why she had survived the expulsion vote while her colleagues didn’t.

Pearson also took offense at the tone one white Republican member used to scold him. Bad enough that the GOP would choose to turn its antagonists into martyrs by penalizing them unduly harshly, but sparing Johnson and not her African-American colleagues opened the door to accusations of racism.

There’s also the small matter of what motivated the March 30 protest. If ever there were a moment not to fault members too much for letting their passion about an issue get the best of them, the aftermath of children being slaughtered is it.

The fact that Pearson cares about protecting kids doesn’t entitle him to bulldoze legislative business, but it’s political malpractice for the GOP to declare a guy persona non grata at a moment when he’s getting hugs from grieving mothers for trying to reduce school shootings. Tennessee is a red enough state that Republicans there don’t need to care much about alienating swing voters, but Republicans nationally aren’t helped by the spectacle of Pearson’s expulsion being treated as an urgent legislative priority as the state reels from a massacre.

It’s another arrow in your quiver if you’re of the opinion that the right isn’t as troubled by routine school shootings as it should be. “The extraordinary punishment of Jones and Pearson makes clear what is beyond the pale to House Republicans,” wrote Zak Cheney-Rice at New York magazine. “The slayings themselves are business as usual.”

Strangest of all about the GOP’s insistence on expelling the Tennessee 3, though, is that they won’t be expelled for long. Under state law, expulsion doesn’t render a member ineligible to serve in the legislature, not even temporarily. Jones and Pearson are each free to run in the special elections that will soon be held in their districts and will assuredly win easily now that they’re famous figures of Democratic “Resistance.” They don’t even need to wait for reelection, in fact: Local authorities are empowered to make interim appointments to fill their seats before the special election. Guess who the authorities in Jones’ and Pearson’s very liberal districts are planning to appoint.

Jones could be back in his seat on Monday. Essentially, the expulsion amounted to giving him a Friday off.

What, then, was the point? When Democratic members staged a sit-in in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016, then-Speaker Paul Ryan laughed it off as a “publicity stunt” and the matter was quickly forgotten. In this case, Jones and Pearson are now progressive stars with presidential support and millions of liberals oohing and ahhing over their viral clips.

“Could have censured the 3 members for rules violation. Instead, they’ll eventually return to office, but now with national profiles and fundraising abilities. That is some real strategery,” tweeted Republican operative Doug Heye afterward of the GOP’s insistence on expulsion. 

No, really. What was the point?

The saga of the Tennessee 3 seems far afield from this week’s other big news, Republicans rallying around Trump post-indictment and the GOP going belly up in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election, but there’s a common thread. In all three cases we find the party pursuing strategies that are obviously—obviously—to its detriment.

It’s not rational to nominate for president a twice-impeached once-indicted coup plotter who’s never received even 47 percent of the vote. It’s not rational to insist on an uncompromising abortion position while losing one election after another because of your uncompromising abortion position. It’s not rational to penalize two progressive legislators in a way that will benefit them substantially without costing them a thing.

It can’t be that Republican politicians are too stupid to recognize that. There must be another explanation.

Is this it?

I wouldn’t say the Republican base wants to lose but I think it’s possible they’ve grown indifferent to losing. If right-wing populism is a cultural tribal identity more so than a political program, sticking with your tribal leader and your stance on abortion is a matter of being true to who you are. You would no sooner modify the tenets of your religious faith than you would the tenets of what you want from your political representatives.

Maybe Tennessee’s Republicans sought the legislative death penalty for Jones and Pearson because it was the maximum lib-owning retaliatory option available and therefore had to be chosen as a matter of tribal identity, whether or not it was destined to backfire. Retaliation is a big part of what it means to be a Republican in the Trump era; just yesterday, for instance, the governor of Florida announced the next stage in his vendetta against “woke” Walt Disney by threatening to raise taxes on the hotels and roads that serve DisneyWorld.

You and I both know who’ll end up footing the bill for those taxes (hint: not Disney), which makes the policy terrible by the standards of conservative fiscal policy but excellent as an expression of blockheaded populist revanchism. Ron DeSantis understands his voters.

That’s probably the most charitable explanation for why Tennessee Republicans did what they did. It’s not that they thought expulsion was wise or justified, perhaps, it’s that they’re all prisoners of a red-state base that doesn’t care whether a policy is wise or justified so long as it inflicts some superficial pain on its enemies. Charlie Sykes is watching the nascent Republican effort in Wisconsin to impeach newly elected supreme court justice Janet Protasiewicz and sees the same thing happening there. It makes no sense for Republicans to do it, but Republicans might have to do it.

How serious is this threat? Legislators I spoke with downplayed the idea, citing Protasiewicz’s double-digit margin [of victory]. They also noted that in Wisconsin, the Democratic governor could appoint an immediate replacement to the court without having to go through a confirmation process. The exercise would be pointless.

Even if Republican leaders ultimately want nothing to do with the chaos that an attempted impeachment would unleash, the wild card is the smoldering rage of the base, which is every bit as angry as Kelly—not to mention Donald Trump. As one of the Republican legislators told me, “It takes only one email from Mar-a-Lago calling us RINOs and asking why we weren’t impeaching her.”

Legislators in Wisconsin and Tennessee belong to a party whose leader encouraged his supporters not to avail themselves of mail-in ballots in 2020, then turned around and assured Republican voters in Georgia that their state’s elections were fraudulent before the crucial Senate runoffs in early 2021. Even if GOP officials want to behave rationally, they have only so much political space to do so.

That’s especially true in a state as red as Tennessee, where an elected Republican has more to fear from his next primary if he’s not seen as a lib-owning “fighter” than he does from the general election.

There’s another way to view what happened on Thursday, not as a statement of tribal identity but as an assertion of dominance. The more insecure Republicans feel about their hold on power, the more harshly they try to reassert it. In Wisconsin they used extreme gerrymandering to build a huge legislative majority; Protasiewicz’s election has put that at risk, so here they are already weighing an extreme measure like impeachment to stop her. In Tennessee, Jones, Pearson, and Johnson chose to rebel at a moment when anti-gun sentiment was likely higher than usual because of the school shooting. Republican legislators might have felt obliged in the moment to send a message that the pro-gun majority will not yield to public pressure. Result: Another extreme measure, expulsion instead of censure.

The irony, notes Greg Sargent, is that this series of red-state power plays has a national audience, and the more alienated that audience becomes, the more insecure Republicans will feel about their hold on power. We’ve ended up in a sort of vicious circle in which, rather than moderate in ways that would grow their coalition, the GOP continues to crack down ever harder on liberals to protect its cultural turf in ways that are ultimately self-destructive.

So it is that a party that couldn’t muster the will to convict and disqualify Trump from public office after he tried to overthrow the government was left supporting expulsion for much lesser offenses in Tennessee. The point wasn’t to hurt the three Democrats, the point was simply to remind everyone who’s in charge locally. We’ll see how that plays nationally in districts where Republicans aren’t so dominant.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.