April 28, 2023

Countering Modern American Authoritarianism

Russ Feingold President

Early this month, the Tennessee House voted along party lines to expel Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Black men. This week, the Montana House voted along party lines to censure Representative Zooey Zephyr, the state’s first openly-trans legislator.

Also this week, Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt shared publicly that she is “under official investigation for a conflict of interest.” What is that supposed conflict of interest? The fact that she has a trans child and voted against anti-trans legislation.

These are acts of authoritarianism, wherein people in power oppress those with whom they disagree and those whose power they fear. It is not just their policy positions that has made these legislators a target, it is their identity – or that of their child – existing in a position of power. Of the three legislators who faced expulsion in the Tennessee legislature this month, it was not a coincidence that the two Black men were expelled while the white woman was not. It’s not random that Montana’s first openly trans legislator has been “silenced” for the rest of the legislative session by being barred from the floor of the chamber to which she was elected. These legislators’ identity represents a threat to those political factions whose platform is white, cis-male grievance.

This trend in authoritarianism, carried out against people of color and LGBTQ+ identity, should send shock waves through everyone in this country who believes in democracy and is committed to ensuring we remain one. When partisan majorities are so willing to abuse their power, the results of elections become fragile and even temporary. The voice of the people is silenced.

On the same day that Janet Protasiewicz won the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, a Republican candidate won a state legislative seat, giving the GOP a supermajority in the Wisconsin legislature. In the same news cycle about Protasiewicz’s win, there was speculation that this new GOP supermajority would move to impeach her. Whether or not this happens, the fact that the possibility so quickly became a part of the narrative is alarming.

Due to gerrymandering of state legislative maps, there are supermajorities in several states for which the state’s partisan makeup would warrant a far more evenly split legislature. It is frightening to consider the possibility that elected representatives who are in the minority party in their legislature, particularly those from historically underrepresented and marginalized communities, have to contemplate the possibility of being expelled from their seats or censured and silenced for speaking up against the views of the majority.

Here is where I find hope. The Tennessee House majority’s decision to expel Representatives Jones and Pearson was met with almost instantaneous and nationwide outrage and political mobilization. These two elected officials became nationally known and gained national voices and influence overnight. In unanimous votes, both the Nashville Metropolitan Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners—duly elected representatives of the same constituencies that originally elected Representative Jones and Pearson, respectively—sent them back to the legislature the week after they were expelled and with more power.

We need to see that same outpouring of political support for Rep. Zephyr and Senator Hunt. One of the greatest antidotes to these acts of authoritarianism is an even greater display of grassroots mobilization in support of targeted representatives. The swift national rebuke to American authoritarianism is critical to keeping this country on track to securing the promise of a multiracial democracy.

As dangerous as this rise in modern American authoritarianism is, I take solace in the simultaneous rise of young people of color and LGBTQ+ identity seeking and winning elected office. We say often that to have a multiracial democracy, we need a multiracial judiciary. That same assessment applies to legislatures, which should reflect the diversity of their constituents. If you are shocked, scared, and/or outraged by these targeted attacks, may I offer a suggestion. Run for office.

Civil rights, Democracy and Voting, LGBTQ Equality