The Tennessee General Assembly drew nationwide condemnation on April 7th for voting to expel Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — two Black elected lawmakers — after they joined protesters and took part in a demonstration calling for action on gun violence. Instead of listening to protesters’ desperate pleas for change in the wake of another mass shooting, Tennessee legislators responded by removing two members of the legislature from office — a brazenly anti-democratic act which left more than a hundred thousand Tennesseeans, mostly people of color, without political representation in state government.
While both men have since been reinstated, it doesn’t at all negate what happened. The Tennessee Legislature demonstrated that they were willing to overlook the will of the people in service of their own political interests. And they aren’t alone.
Preserving power at the expense of democracy
Days before the state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin, Dan Knodl — a candidate running in the 8th Senate District who would go on to win his race — said he would “certainly consider” launching impeachment proceedings against Janet Protasiewicz, although it’s not clear whether he was only discussing impeaching her as a circuit court judge or as a Supreme Court Justice.
Knodl’s comments come after the long-overdue conclusion of Michael’s Gabelman’s 2020 election audit, a sham, nearly $2 million taxpayer-funded investigation into apparent widespread voter fraud that never existed. And in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential race, ten Wisconsinites were involved in the fake elector plot to reverse the results.
But Wisconsin’s anti-democratic trends predated the “election hoax” hysteria of 2020. After voters elected a new governor and attorney general in 2018, then-Governor Scott Walker signed into law a package of bills that diminished the power of both offices just as a new administration was about to take over.
If we have so many politicians willing to take these egregious actions — from removing duly elected officials for purely partisan reasons, to relentlessly challenging the results of a free and fair election, to altering our system of government itself — democracy cannot prevail. The expulsions in Tennessee and the erosion of democracy in Wisconsin reflect a growing number of American politicians who refuse to relinquish power, even when it comes at the voters’ expense.
Retaliating against dissent
The events in Tennessee also shine a light on another harrowing reality — that we as a country are still often more comfortable chilling dissent than we are with facing it. When confronted with spirited protest over the government’s response to gun violence, it’s telling that the leadership in Tennessee’s legislature chose to retaliate against the dissenters rather than answer to them. It’s also telling that while the two Black representatives involved in the protest were thrown out, the white representative, who also participated, was spared her job.
This racial disparity parallels the reaction that states have had to other protest activity, especially when that activity is BIPOC-led. In the aftermath of the 2020 mass mobilizations against police violence, a number of state legislature’s, including Wisconsin’s, introduced bills intended to crackdown and criminalize protest. Senate Bill 96, Wisconsin’s anti-protest bill, was recently reintroduced in 2023. That this legislation became prevalent after waves of Black-led protests is no coincidence. The silencing of Black voices — and the ousting of Black leaders — is nothing new.
Historical roots of removing Black leaders
In 1868, white legislators in Georgia expelled 33 Black legislators elected to the state government. Henry McNeal Turner, one of the legislators expelled from office, stated in response, “[White legislators] question my right to a seat in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard-of monopoly of power.” Almost 100 years later in Georgia, the George House of Representatives tried to stop elected Black legislator Julian Bond from being sworn in due to his condemning the U.S. actions in Vietnam. Bond sued and his case made it to the Supreme Court under Bond v. Floyd where the Supreme Court supported Bond’s freedom of speech and protected his constituents' right to elect their representative. Like many of America’s most entrenched problems, the removal of Black leaders in Tennessee has deep roots to the past.
The signals of democratic backsliding we are seeing in Tennessee, Wisconsin and beyond cannot be ignored. The increasingly dangerous lengths politicians and governments are going to preserve power poses a grave threat to democracy. We all must take notice of and reverse these anti-democratic trends. We can’t afford not to.