Late Thursday evening, Tennessee Republicans made the unprecedented move of expelling two Democrats from the state Legislature over their participation in a gun control–related protest following last week’s school shooting in Nashville. The vote, the first partisan expulsion in Tennessee since the Civil War era, is a chilling portent of the future of Republican governance and the state of democracy nationwide.
A week prior, demonstrators, many of them teenagers, marched on the statehouse calling for tighter gun laws after a shooting left six people dead. Democratic representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both of whom are Black and in their 20s, headed onto the House floor, interrupting the Legislature by chanting “no action, no peace”; Jones held up a hand-drawn sign reading “Protect kids, not guns.” (Three children were killed in the recent Nashville school shooting, and guns are now the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1 to 18.) Their call to colleagues to pass legislation brought the chamber to a temporary halt.
The Republican speaker of the House, Cameron Sexton, responded with what the New York Times has called an “extraordinary act of retribution for the protests.” He compared the demonstration to the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, and deemed the Democrats’ participation in the protest a violation of House rules on decorum. He swiftly revoked ID badge access to the State Capitol building and removed two of the three participating lawmakers from their committee assignments.
A few days later, Sexton successfully spearheaded the first partisan expulsion in modern Tennessee history, on the grounds that those lawmakers “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House and “generally engaged in disorderly and disruptive conduct.” A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, who is white, survived expulsion by just one vote. (At least one Republican was outed as having broken House rules just in the course of the pre-vote hearing, and he, predictably, did not face expulsion.) The last such action came in 1866, when six legislators were expelled for their efforts to prevent the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to freed slaves. Two expulsion votes have happened since—in 1980 and 2016—though both were bipartisan and involved bribery convictions and sexual misconduct allegations.
The expulsion of these Democratic lawmakers, who represent Nashville and Memphis, came despite the fact that no criminal charges or even criminal investigations have been brought or pursued. Republicans, however, uncowed by charges of hypocrisy, can do whatever they want because they enjoy a supermajority in the chamber: There are 73 Republicans to just 26 Democrats.
One question loomed over the proceedings: Where was Joe Biden? Biden has prided himself on his record as a defender of democracy and a no-nonsense legislator on gun control. On the campaign trail and in his most recent State of the Union, he celebrated the extremely limited gun control legislation that was passed in his first term, and a similarly narrow pro-democracy reform bill.
Yet in Tennessee, where his fellow Democrats were engaged in clearly protected speech in the name of a policy he greatly supports, Biden was nowhere to be seen. In fact, as a group of protesters rallied outside the Legislature Thursday, no prominent national Democrats managed to turn up.
The absence of the national party is especially alarming given the antidemocratic register of what’s happening. Unprecedented though it is, the Tennessee Legislature’s move seems to augur a new tactic in the Republican war on democratic governance. In red states, especially those with supermajorities, Republicans seem newly committed to removing their opponents from office under even the thinnest of pretenses.
A similar situation is developing in Wisconsin. On Tuesday, in an election that garnered national attention, Democrats swung control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with the election of liberal Janet Protasiewicz securing a 4–3 liberal majority.
But on the same day, Republican Dan Knodl was elected to the state Senate, giving Republicans a supermajority in the chamber. With it comes the power to impeach public officials. The chamber currently has 22 Republican senators to just 11 Democrats—this, in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by just one percentage point of the state’s total electorate.
All of this is the result of a fiercely and shamelessly gerrymandered electoral map that many hope the election of Judge Protasiewicz might remedy, if and when the maps come before the state Supreme Court.
Of course, Republicans might not wait long enough for us to find out. Already, Knodl has signaled some support for the idea of using his newly established supermajority swing vote for help in impeaching Protasiewicz. Just a few days before Election Day, he said he would “certainly consider” launching impeachment proceedings against her. The idea has already gained some traction among his Republican colleagues.
This new strategy looks like a red-state variation on the impeachment frenzy that Republicans have pursued in recent years in blue states. In places like California, where Republicans don’t have the faintest chance of competing for office legitimately, they’ve looked for other ways to override the democratic process. In 2021, that resulted in the very expensive and very failed effort to recall Gavin Newsom.
But there have also been times those recall efforts have worked. In San Francisco, progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin got recalled after moderate Democrats made common cause with Republicans to overturn the democratic election result and help install a tough-on-crime successor.
Now, Republicans seem to be rolling out their red-state equivalent. And given the nature of the gerrymanders that have secured Republican supermajorities in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina, which are still battleground states in national and statewide elections, this could happen in purplish and dark-red states, both.
While Republicans have focused on gerrymandering and voter suppression as the primary prongs of their assault on democracy (as well as the occasional insurrection attempt), the willingness to expel democratically elected Democrats for minor-verging-on-made-up infractions portends a terrifying new development. If Democrats want to defend democracy, and defend themselves, they’re going to have to show up.