What Tennessee Can Tell Us About Our Extreme Politics – CNN One Thing

What Tennessee Can Tell Us About Our Extreme Politics – CNN One Thing

Being speaker of the House is kind of a dicey proposition these days. I’ll tell you why. Mike Johnson is that man, at least for the moment. But he controls one of the narrowest margins in house history. And there’s this rule where at any time, any one member can call for his ouster and his fate is put up for a vote. That’s what happened to the former speaker, Kevin McCarthy, last year. Well, recently, Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia took the first step to do the same thing to Mike Johnson.


Marjorie Taylor Greene


This is basically a warning, and it’s time for us to go through through the process, take our time and find a new speaker of the House that will stand with Republicans in our Republican majority, instead of standing with the Democrats.

It remains to be seen if she’ll actually call up her motion to vacate when the House is back from recess. So Mike Johnson is still the House speaker for now. But all this to say, it’s one thing to be in the majority. It’s another to truly be in power. Look no further than the state House in Tennessee. My guest this week is CNN’s Van Jones. He’s a former Obama administration official and current CNN political commentator. We’re going to talk about what Republican rule in the Volunteer state can tell us about the stakes of our national elections come November from CNN. This is one thing. I’m David Rind.

So you are from Tennessee.

So you have been doing some reporting on the political dynamic in the state and how that has kind of been changing over the years. So where did you start?

Well, look, I was born in 1968, on the edge of a small town called Jackson, Tennessee. It’s about halfway between Memphis and Nashville. You got to understand, when I was in high school, al Gore was my senator. The Democrats ran the state. People don’t think of Tennessee as being this red. Red state. Yeah. You know, we had a a speaker of the House, Jim Naveh, who was an Arab American. I got my start in politics working for him. And yet now it is.

‘It’s as red as it could be. It’s Crayola box red. And it’s been remarkable to watch a state in the Mid-South. Real heavy handed, iron fisted, one party rule in an American state. And, so I went back to, to figure out what happened.

And so what did you find?

Well, I found a couple of things. The building, the state legislature. Still beautiful on the outside, very ugly on the inside. The 2010 Tea Party wave. That midterm election in Obama’s first term wound up elevating the Republican Party to a level of power in the state that it had not had, and that, state legislature immediately moved to gerrymander the hell out of the state so that even blue strongholds like, say, Nashville, Tennessee, they have no Democrats representing the entire city in Congress because they basically stretched the districts out through, you know, all the farmland and country land they could find and have locked themselves in now to what seems like a permanent Republican supermajority.

And so what does that actually look like on the ground then?

Well, on the ground, it looks like 60% of people vote for Republicans. And yet I think the House is 70% Republican and the Senate is 80% Republican, and nothing can get passed. So, for instance, there’s all kinds of shootings. And even when Republican, conservative Christian school got shot up, those Republican conservative parents couldn’t get, even red flag law passed. Just I mean, nothing is possible, and it’s just getting worse and worse.

A community up in arms over the expulsion of two Democrat representatives from the Republican led state House on Thursday.

And it got into national attention when a couple of young black lawmakers just couldn’t stand it anymore. Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and, marched up to the well, with a white colleague and got thrown out of the state legislature.

Right. I remember this. So they were kicked out just for protesting? Yes. Inaction on guns.

We are still three. Tennessee three.

Gloria Johnson, a white woman, was the only one to survive the expulsion. Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are black, did not.

They were actually ejected from the body. And it became a global spectacle.

In the hallways of the state capitol in Nashville, demonstrators yelling and crying, with some staging a dying in protest.

And, so I went down there to check it out and to meet with those guys and with other people.

And what did they tell you about that experience and what they learned from it?

Well, I felt moved talking to these young guys. They are more courageous than most people. Once you were expelled, did you think, hey, why should I go back there? It never occurred to you maybe not to rejoin this body that seems to be so toxic.

No, that didn’t run for office to serve. Cameron Sexton and William Lemon came to serve 70,000 people who are in district 86. That came to serve the black folk who voted to elect us in. And the white folk who wanted to and cared about the movement for justice.

And so they stuck up for what they believed in and got thrown out. And then their city council sent them right back in. And so now they’ve got to walk the.

Halls with the people that kicked with the.

Very people who literally threw them out and still try to represent their their beliefs.

My hope is that that expulsion began a process of expelling the spirit of a plantation politics from this building of a system which says that you don’t belong here, because that’s really what they were trying to do, was they were trying to send to every young black and brown so that your voice does not matter here.

And it harkened back to earlier days in the city of Nashville, where a young guy named John Lewis was a youth activist, at Fisk University, and, you know, led sit ins and along with Diane Nash and others. And that spirit seems to be very present in those young people. Where do you see Tennessee five years from now?

Tennessee five years from now uses, I think, the reality of the moment that we have seen, as a catalyst for change. I still think, the hope, for the South is this state as a gateway into it.

So I think this dynamic that you describe is not too unfamiliar to people who follow politics, especially in Washington. The idea of a majority stonewalling just about everything. Nothing gets done. Are there Republicans in Tennessee who don’t necessarily like that? This is the way it’s become so extreme.

It does seem to be the case that this is not working out really for a lot of people. You know, it was it was funny. I kind of met two rising stars kind of out of the grassroots and everybody.

Hey, how are you? I am well, how are you?

‘Odessa Kelly in Nashville. African-American. Female Democrat. And then Matthew Shoaf, just outside of Nashville in a more of a kind of a suburban exurban area. And he’s like a rising star on the right.

First question I want to ask is, why did you agree to talk to me?

Well, I almost didn’t. So.

I was going there expecting. Okay, well, they’re going to be as different as different can be. And I was shocked to discover, first of all, both of them very, very smart, very charismatic, very good at organizing their constituencies, but also pointing to some very similar problems in the state, including racial division.

You may, may not believe it, but I, you know, I grew up poor, so I, I believe in criminal justice reform. I believe in giving people the ability to get, get back. Right. So and that, you know, where I grew up, where I grew up, of the 6 or 7 kids that I grew up with, three of them didn’t make it 40. One of them died in police custody.

Shoaf, who was a white guy, conservative, talked about having lost a friend to police violence, was frustrated that white rural issues, including police brutality, weren’t being taken seriously. Frustrated about, the kind of development issues of maybe changing his community in a way he didn’t want to change.

Or infrastructure needs to catch up. So that’s one we say, I’m talking to me like roads, sewage, sewer, traffic.

Traffic as far as the city, the infrastructure could not keep up with the growth, which is what is pushed. You know, working class people out to the fringes is gentrification.

And that was very similar to what Odessa was talking about.

And I think the city has a responsibility to make sure it is intentional, taking care of all of his residents, not just those who have the resources. You know.

Where she was fighting to get community economic development dollars. And and I’m like, hold on a second. Now, from a cultural point of view, certainly very far right, certainly very far left, but on economics, on issues of local power and a sense of frustration with the system. They were singing from the same hymn book and didn’t know it, could not hear each other’s voices, because everything is now fractured through this culture war.

It’s like below all the noise of the culture war issues. You still have people that like your hand put food on the table and you have to govern.

Exactly. By the way, the state legislature is actually banning and forbidding and preventing the city of Nashville and the city of Memphis from even passing laws that they want to pass for their own residents. Wow. So it’s not just that you have, you know, this overreach of power in some abstract way. The people in Nashville say, well, fine, well, we want to tax ourselves to do this. We want to run our schools that way. No, it’s hard to me to figure out why the existing Republican Party is a conservative enough in Tennessee, what’s wrong with the existing Republican Party and says that you need to come and make it even more conservative?

Well, it’s it depends on who you ask. The existing General Assembly, they ultimately did the right thing when it came to all the stuff that was happening during Covid, but not before a lot of before people lost their jobs. I’m before people were discriminated against, for various choices that they made on their own, of their own accord. So like, I, you know, I don’t really care who’s who’s waving the flag and you know how conservative I am. I’m just looking at like, what happened and how things are going. I’m like, you guys messed up there. And.

I was able to meet some grassroots activists who are on the conservative side, and they feel that the Republican Party at the state level doesn’t respect them either, and won’t listen to them either. When it comes to things like Covid and other things that they were concerned about and they were exercised about. And then I think the other thing that was remarkable to me was, how little contact there is between, grassroots activists say, in the blue cities, say in Nashville, say, Memphis, and people who are just literally 20 minutes away, 30 minutes away, in the suburbs and exurbs, they talk about each other. They don’t talk to each other.

Where does that come from, that incentive structure to operate this way. And. Can anything be done about it?

‘Well, I wish I had great answers. I think that once you get a voting rights regime that allows the kind of extreme gerrymandering, the so-called cracking and packing of certain districts. So you take a blue stronghold and you just chop it up, into little bits and connect it to rural red parts of the state. And suddenly no Democrat can get elected, or very few can get elected. And those who do get elected because there’s a supermajority, in place. They don’t they don’t have much power. How does that change? Part of it. I hope that there may be some changes in federal election law at some point that allows for more fair districting. And in the meantime, young people like these two justins, are just going to continue, I think, to raise a fight.

So when you hear people, you know, raise their voices against this idea of gerrymandering, you’re saying like it’s a representation thing, but then it also kind of solidifies those structures where people don’t talk to each other, and then you get to a place where just nothing is getting passed.

Well, while certainly not anything that reflects what the majority of Tennesseans want. That’s the crazy thing is there’s a big disconnect. The majority of even MAGA, Republicans after that Christian school got shot up were in favor, at least according to polls of there being some legislative action, including red flag laws. No red flag laws are ever going to get passed it into a Z with this, conservative majority. The crazy thing is, when you get this level of concentration of power, it’s not just the blue cities that suffer. Even the suburbs, the rural areas, the grassroots conservatives don’t like. They have a lot of power. And, I don’t see a way to fix it until there’s some change in federal law.

And if you want to see more of van’s great reporting, check out the whole story with Anderson Cooper. Vans episode is going to be streaming over on Max starting on Tuesday, April 2nd. One thing is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me, David Rind. Our senior producer is Faiz Jamil. Our supervising producer is Greg Peppers. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Dan Dzula is our technical director. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN audio. We get support from Haley Thomas, Alex Manasseri, Robert Mathers, John Dianora, Lenni Steinhart, Jamus Andrest, Nicole Pesaru, and Lisa Namerow. Special thanks to Will Simon and Katie Hinman. We’ll be back next week with another episode. I will talk to you then.

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