GOP efforts to legislate its ideology

York Dispatch editorial board

The dismissal of two Democratic state lawmakers in Tennessee — temporarily, as it turns out — is just the latest example of Republican office-holders’ increasing tendency to enforce their ideology through often overreaching legislation.

That it backfired in this instance is no reason not to gird against the onslaught, which shows no sign of wavering.

The Tennessee lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled from the state House of Representatives by the body’s Republican supermajority for joining a protest on the house floor against gun violence in the wake of a fatal mass shooting at a Nashville elementary school. A third Democratic representative who joined the protest, Gloria Johnson, evaded expulsion by a single vote.

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Such demonstrations are not unheard of. The late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia led a 25-hour sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016, also in response to GOP intransigence on gun violence. Needless to say, he retained his seat.

Jones and Pearson — “the Justins,” as they’ve come to be known — will retain their seats as well, but only because Tennessee law allows county officials to fill legislative vacancies and they were reappointed.

The Tennessee supermajority meanwhile, has come in for deserved national criticism. Reversing the will of voters for a relatively minor transgression was bad enough. Expelling two young Black lawmakers while sparing Johnson, who is white, injected racial overtones into the bald display of partisan punishment. (The lawmakers were none too pleased at the full-voiced criticism, as was made evident on the leaked audiotape of a subsequent caucus meeting.)

The much-deserved negative press won’t be enough to slow similar legislative overreach, however. Republican lawmakers who think nothing of turning on their own when they don’t embrace the party line (think Liz Cheney) certainly won’t pause in attempting to enforce their ideology over the general public.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis  (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the current leader of this authoritarian parade. His efforts to proscribe discussion of matters related to gender, sexual orientation and the nation’s racial history in public schools and colleges represent an all-out assault on education and intellectual freedom.

And when he was criticized for his heavy-handedness by the Disney Corp., he quickly marshalled the Republican majority in the statehouse to pass a bill stripping the company’s Florida theme park of a special tax break and self-governing district it had enjoyed for 55 years. That Disney employed a last-minute legal maneuver to dilute the DeSantis-led takeover does nothing to diminish the abuse of power the governor’s actions represent.

Elsewhere, Florida and many other states including Pennsylvania have seen efforts to ban books from schools, defund public libraries, and outlaw drag shows. (Pennsylvania, by the way was third in the nation last year for most banned books.)

And when Republicans aren’t trying to dictate what the public can read, learn or be entertained by, they’re threatening to wield power to punish criminal justice agencies for doing their jobs. Indicted former President Donald Trump, the current 2024 GOP presidential frontrunner, has lead the charge to defund the FBI and the Department of Justice since they’ve intensified their investigations of his actions regarding concealed top-secret documents and hush-money payments to an adult film actress, but they are hardly alone.

Add ongoing Republican-led attempts to ban abortion (including a move by at least one state to restrict interstate travel for the procedure), block gender-affirming care for transgender minors and adults, and mandate that courts consider so-called religious-freedom arguments when weighing challenges to laws such as vaccine requirements, and it is clear the party is brazenly trying to legislatively forge the nation into its own conservative image.

Non-conservative Americans shouldn’t be forced to live their lives within the confines of conservative orthodoxy. But unless the power of authoritarian governors and supermajority legislators is diluted, this troubling, undemocratic cancer will continue to spread.