This Is How Red States Silence Blue Cities. And Democracy.
NASHVILLE — January in Nashville ushers in two forces for chaos: erratic weather and irrational legislators. Both are massively disruptive. Neither is surprising anymore.
In the age of climate change, Mark Twain’s old joke about New England — if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes — is true all over the country. But even careening between thunderstorms and snow, sometimes in a single day, erratic weather is easier to cope with than the G.O.P. Unlike human beings, weather isn’t supposed to be rational.
Neither, it seems, are Republicans, at least not anymore, and a blue city that serves as the capital of a red state had better brace itself when the legislature arrives in town. Nothing good ever comes when the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes, but any Nashvillian paying attention understood that this time the usual assaults would be unusually bad.
Last year, when Nashville’s Metro Council voted not to support the state’s bid for the city to host the 2024 Republican National Convention, retaliation was widely understood to be inevitable, according to Nashville’s NPR affiliate, WPLN News.
Now we know what shape retaliation will take: Last week, on the first day of the new legislative session, Republicans in both the Tennessee House and Senate introduced legislation that would cut our Metro Council in half. (The bills ostensibly apply to all city governments with a legislative body larger than 20 members, but that’s just Nashville.) If passed, the law would overturn not only a 60-year history but also the will of the Nashville people, who voted in 2015 to keep its 40-member council intact.
The new bills set a “dangerous precedent,” according to the Democratic House caucus chair, John Ray Clemmons. “The G.O.P. supermajority’s continued efforts to overstep into local affairs and usurp the decision-making authority of local officials for the purpose of centralizing more and more power at the state level is concerning,” Mr. Clemmons told The Tennessean. “Ultimately, Nashville families know what’s best for Nashville.”
Metro Council is larger than the legislative branch of every American city except Chicago and New York, cities that dwarf Nashville. There are good arguments for reducing its size, which is the result of compromises made in 1962 when residents of Davidson County voted to form a metropolitan government, but that’s a different question. What matters here is that the state of Tennessee is once again interfering in the self-governance of the blue city that drives the economic engine of the entire red state. And state lawmakers are doing it for absolutely no reason but spite.
There is, of course, a long history of legislative pre-emption in Tennessee. The tactic is also used by Democratic-controlled legislatures, but it is especially egregious in Southern states governed by Republican supermajorities. Just last week, another state lawmaker here introduced a bill that would ban local governments from helping residents fund out-of-state abortions — a policy that members of Nashville’s council have already proposed.
It’s no surprise that the party of voter suppression and disenfranchisement is also the party of undermining local governance. But it’s worse this year, or at least it feels worse this year, because this year Nashville voters can’t count on representation at the national level either.
The South used to be the land of the Yellow Dog Democrat — someone who would vote a straight Democratic ticket even if the Democratic candidate were a yellow dog — but those days are long gone. There are still legions of Democrats down here, as well as a growing number of voters who are left of the mainstream Democratic Party, but they are clustered in college towns and growing cities like Nashville, where they live and work shoulder to shoulder with old-school conservatives and rabid Donald Trump supporters alike. Joe Biden won Nashville with almost 65 percent of the vote.
But thanks to a brutally gerrymandered election map, we didn’t send a moderate Democrat, one who could reasonably represent the interests of both Nashville liberals and Nashville conservatives, to Washington this year. Instead, the newly mutilated Nashville is represented by three of the most militant right-wingers the state has ever elected.
This particular injustice likely seems irrelevant to anybody who doesn’t live here. Occurring as it does among so many other political injustices in a nation moving rapidly toward minority rule, even the utter disenfranchisement of an entire American city is hard to get particularly worked up about.
But you ought to be worked up about it. You ought to be protesting in the streets about it because what is happening in Tennessee, and in so many other states governed by Republican supermajorities, goes a long way toward explaining what is happening in the U.S. Congress.
Andy Ogles, for example, is the newly elected congressman from Tennessee’s redrawn Fifth District, a seat held for two decades by Rep. Jim Cooper back when the seat still included all of Nashville. In Washington, Mr. Ogles immediately allied himself with the nihilist wing of the Republican Party, voting 11 times against Rep. Kevin McCarthy for the speakership. In Nashville, then, we have gone from being represented by a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats to being represented by a founding member of what might well be called the Dead Dog Caucus. What else should we call legislators who have no interest in legislating?
In dismembering Nashville to create three Republican voting districts, in other words, the Tennessee General Assembly managed only to nationalize its own brand of chaos. And maybe that was the whole point.
Mark E. Green, an ardent Trump supporter who represents Tennessee’s Seventh District, which now includes parts of Nashville, is a vocal election denier. Mr. Green is one of 34 Republican members of Congress who exchanged text messages with the former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows as the far-right flank of the party sought nominal justification to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Even after the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Green voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election. As Holly McCall, the editor in chief of the nonprofit news site the Tennessee Lookout, writes, such behavior from elected officials has “seeded our voting public with mistrust that continues to harm our democracy.”
But wrecking American democracy is not enough for the Dead Dog Party. Last fall Mr. Green flew to Brazil to do the same thing in that much more fragile democracy. In a trip paid for by the American Conservative Union, he met with Brazilian lawmakers pushing to change election laws. The meeting’s agenda: to discuss “voting integrity policies.” We know what happened next: Thanks in part to one of Nashville’s representatives in Congress, anti-democracy riots are now an American export.
Meanwhile, here at home, Mr. Green has just been named chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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