Republicans are pushing American democracy to its breaking point

They are working within the boundaries of the democratic system in order to tear it down.

Rep Justin Pearson, Rep Justin Jones, Rep Gloria Johnson
Rep Justin Pearson, Rep Justin Jones, Rep Gloria Johnson hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at the Tennessee state Capitol building, in Nashville, US, April 3, 2023 [File: Nicole Hester/USA Today Network via Reuters]

The recent move by Tennessee Republicans to expel two young, Black Democratic state legislators for engaging in a peaceful protest for gun control following a horrible mass shooting at a Nashville Christian school has been described in many different ways.

Some called the expulsions “anti-democratic” while others went further to characterise them as “fascistic”. The removal of these two young Black men, coupled with the failure to punish their older white female colleague for the same action, has also been labelled “racist” and an echo of the state’s sordid past.

Moreover, many recognised the political stunt as a blunder and an own goal. After all, both expelled legislators were promptly reappointed to their seats by their districts and have now become rising national figures, speaking with President Joe Biden and meeting Vice President Kamala Harris, who made a surprise and impassioned appearance in Nashville.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee GOP has been widely condemned by Democrats, and some prominent Republicans, including the state’s congressional delegation. Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee, however, opted to remain silent on the move.

It is hard not to question the wisdom of the Tennessee legislators enacting such an extreme, divisive and ultimately futile punishment. But viewed nationally, the drama in Tennessee is nothing but another step in the same direction for the GOP. Recently, the party has not only shed whatever commitment it may have once held for democracy but appears intent on promoting a distinctly anti-democratic, if not qualitatively fascist, political agenda. In this context, what the Tennessee Republicans did was not a blunder or an overreach – it was a test case.

In this state and elsewhere around the country, Republicans have been pressure-testing the strength and limits of democracy, seeing where they can violate and erode the rules and norms of democracy in order to gain and hold office and push through conservative laws and policies.

The ACLU says since 2021, 10 states have enacted anti-critical race theory laws that attack “our First Amendment rights to read, learn, and discuss vital topics in schools”, with over two dozen additional anti-CRT laws proposed in 2022 alone.

The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law which tracks legislation that “restricts the right to peaceful assembly” reports that seven states have enacted anti-protest laws since 2017. These laws, among other provisions, enact harsh penalties for blocking traffic and some states’ laws provide immunities for drivers who hit pedestrian protesters. These laws have also been employed to crack down against journalists covering protests.

In addition to suppressing vital civil rights, Republican governors and state legislators are also actively engaged in efforts to undermine the power of voters, efforts that Brennan Center fellow Zachary Roth calls “legislative anti-democracy”. These moves have included heightened efforts at gerrymandering; reconfiguring the way Electoral College votes are allocated to favour Republican candidates; making direct democracy, such as ballot initiatives, more difficult to achieve; and using state laws to negate or undermine more liberal local municipalities.

The Republican-appointed majority of the Supreme Court, in tossing aside the principle of stare decisis to overturn Roe vs Wade despite it being “settled law”, has now emboldened conservative judges to engage in the type of judicial activism that liberals have often been accused of conducting.

Recently, a federal judge in Texas attempted to implement a nationwide ban on the abortion drug Mifepristone on the basis that the FDA had improperly approved it in 2000. The dubious and flimsy argument behind the ruling made clear that it was a political, rather than legal or scientific, decision.

Given the Supreme Court’s conservative and highly politicised supermajority, such challenges from conservative judges hoping to create cases for the conservative justices to enact more aspects of their agenda are likely to become more frequent in the immediate future.

It is not just that conservative Republican officials are pursuing their agenda through various branches and levels of government. It is that they are doing so in ways that disregard or even actively violate fundamental principles upon which American democracy was founded – they appear willing if not eager to damage that democratic bedrock in order to enact their agenda.

And they are actively learning from one another.

In 2016, Christian nationalist activists launched “Project Blitz” – later rebranded as “Freedom for All” – to offer effective blueprints to Republicans looking to pass local and state-level laws to achieve their political goals, such as carving out religious exceptions in anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws or scaling back abortion services. Later, a number of states copied one another in enacting legislation banning examinations of racial injustice such as the 1619 Project and the so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT). Meanwhile, a few Republican-dominated states, like Florida under Ron DeSantis and Texas under Greg Abbott, have become productive laboratories for repressive conservative legislation.

Sometimes, a few conservative extremists devise a strategy that others emulate. Texas, alongside Oklahoma and Tennessee, for example, passed the first anti-CRT “divisive concepts” laws in May 2021 which later spread to Red states across the country. Similarly, Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law quickly found imitators in states like Alabama and Texas.

At other times, strategies fail to gain traction, and the party switches course. Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat in 2020 spawned copycat election deniers from Arizona to Michigan. Such claims did not stick, however, and most deniers eventually failed to win state-level elected office. However, several leading supporters of Trump’s “stolen election” narrative managed to gain power within their state GOP machinery anyway, with several becoming GOP party chairs and continuing to pull the party further to the right with new strategies and tactics.

Although Republican supermajorities in other states could abuse their power the way that the Tennessee legislators did, the specific tactic of expelling political opponents from office on exaggerated charges may end up being another failed experiment given the enormous backlash. But it will almost certainly be followed by more moves by Republican politicians and operatives to test the boundaries of what they can get away with, either in that state or somewhere else where the GOP currently holds power.

And although this portion of the story is not widely noticed, the Tennessee debacle has given a useful peek into the mindset of Republicans who seek to consolidate power by any means necessary.

In the leaked audio from Tennessee Republicans discussing the fallout of the expulsion vote, state Rep Scott Cepicky spoke of the move not as a political stunt but as a salvo in an existential war for the country.

“If you don’t believe we’re at war for our Republic – with all love and respect for you, you need a different job,” he said. “The left want Tennessee so bad. Because, if they get us, the Southeast falls and it’s game over for the Republic … I’ve gotten phone calls from other reps, going ‘We sure hope you guys stand up. Because maybe it will give us the courage to stand up and push back against what’s going to destroy our republic’.”

With this apocalyptic thinking, Republicans have convinced themselves that their grabs for power are necessary tactics furthering a righteous cause. Framing themselves as the last defenders of the country, the GOP has justified any and all tactics to achieve victory, even a Pyrrhic victory that destroys the democracy it claims to defend. Under this mindset, we can expect a lot more political manoeuvres as outrageous and diabolically creative as that from Tennessee.

Fortunately, this war footing appears to be the perspective of only a minority of Americans, although it seems to be growing within the GOP. Having seen the dangers of this thinking play out more dramatically through illegal acts like the January 6 insurrection, it is important for any true defenders of American democracy to recognise that it is equally pernicious when the Republican “save our country at any cost” mindset operates within the current boundaries of American democracy in order to tear those boundaries down.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.