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Do legislative supermajorities weaken the democratic process, as seen in Tennessee?


Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, the Democratic lawmakers expelled by Republicans from the Tennessee legislature are determined to get their seats back, and both of them could learn as soon as today what's next for their political futures in the state. A GOP supermajority last week voted out Jones and Pearson after the two young Black lawmakers led a protest on the Tennessee House floor calling for gun law reforms. A white colleague who was also up for expulsion managed to keep her seat by just one vote. Our next guest says the expulsions are examples of what happens when one party has too much power. Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Ken, thanks for being here. Good morning.

KEN PAULSON: Very good to join you.

FADEL: So it was a supermajority that ousted these two Democrats. How does one party having so much power in a legislature affect the democratic process?

PAULSON: Well, the problem is that it tends to nullify the traditional tools of democracy. The First Amendment gave us this extraordinary gift in America. You know, we have five freedoms, four of which were expressly designed to give Americans a real voice in the destiny of the nation. So we have the right to exercise our free speech, and we can assemble together and march, and we can petition the government and say these things need to change. And we can also help keep government in check by supporting a free press.

Now, in theory, our nation gets stronger and smarter and more dynamic when everyone can share their views. But supermajorities - they don't have to pay a whole lot of attention to those four tools of democracy because marches and protests and speeches and editorials, all those things have very little impact if those in power just ignore them. They - you know, they never have to worry about their legislation passing. They don't have to worry about getting reelected because, largely, gerrymandering has taken care of that. And they don't have to worry about critical editorials or news stories 'cause they just need to call that fake news. And so collectively, all these things we as Americans use, the tools we have used in 1791 to participate in democracy, to have our voices be heard - those, in effect, are nullified because those in power simply don't pay attention.

FADEL: So do you think what happened in Tennessee could happen in other parts of the country with supermajorities?

PAULSON: Well, there are two things that happen in Tennessee. First of all, it was just the raw emotion, the anger by the lawmakers in the General Assembly to pay back Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson for what they described as violating the House's decorum and insulting the dignity of the House. And when you listen to those and when you realize that throughout the history of Tennessee - I mean, this didn't happen until 1866. It has only happened when people have committed crime or extended immorality.

So when you realize that they were kicked out because, really, speaking loudly on the floor of the House about the quality of work the legislature was doing - they were critical of them; they were saying they weren't being responsive to their representatives; you have to wonder what triggered that, how that rose to the level of a crime. And you look at it, and you go, wait, it's obvious they were criticizing these lawmakers who didn't want to be criticized in public. And so this was payback. And obviously, that has major, major impact on democracy and the way we speak freely in our society.

FADEL: Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

Thank you so much, Ken.

PAULSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.