Expel Them All
You can engage in civil disobedience or you can engage in the political process as a lawmaker, but not both.
Following Audrey Hale’s March 27 massacre of three students and three adults at a Christian school in Nashville, three Tennessee state lawmakers staged a protest in the state Capitol on March 30. They approached the well in the legislative chamber, where they led protesters in the galleries in pro–gun control chants. The demonstration disrupted deliberations on an education bill, and the speaker of the Tennessee House called an hour’s adjournment.
The legislature expelled two of the members, State Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are black; a third, Rep. Gloria Johnson, is white and was not expelled. Critics suggested the difference in treatment is rooted in racial prejudice; the single legislator who voted to expel Jones and Pearson but not Johnson cited the fact that the expelled members used megaphones in the chamber as the distinction behind his vote.
Let us lay aside for a moment that the protest took place in the context of deemphasizing Hale’s personal responsibility and motives—the manifesto that accompanied the transsexual’s massacre at a Christian grade school continues to be suppressed by law enforcement. Let us also lay aside the dispute over the legislature’s motives in expelling Jones and Pearson but maintaining Johnson.
The focus on the justness of the protest and the possible racial animus of the expulsions misses the real point: It makes no sense for members of government to engage in civil disobedience against the government of which they are members. All three legislators should be expelled.
The premise of constitutional government is that policy is made and changed by elected representatives. That is what our political life is—our representatives come together and deliberate based on certain agreed-upon rules. They have been invested with the power to set policy and make law, which we expect all citizens then to follow. The premise of civil disobedience is that the ordinary legal political processes, from lobbying to voting, are not addressing a pressing need.
If you, as a member of government, think the political system has broken down such that elected bodies acting by established parliamentary rules are incapable of producing needed outcomes, whether you sit on those bodies or not should be irrelevant; you have thrown in your lot with extrapolitical means. In the case of the three Tennesseans, the contradiction is emphasized by the disruption of the assembly’s normal deliberative process.
This sort of departure from normal political life may be just; there is a long history of resignations from principle in the Anglo-American political tradition. In extreme circumstances, there is a revolutionary and tyrannicide strain in the tradition. But to insist on remaining part of deliberative representative bodies is to evince a desire to work things out through politics, through making laws, through the power you have by the agreed-upon procedures of deliberative government. Pick one.
The lawmaker’s case is distinct from that of a private citizen, who does not hold political power, engaging in civil disobedience because there is a breakdown between him and the people in power; when the people in power have a breakdown among themselves and resort to extralegal techniques to address it, we have a rather uglier phrase for it.
The contretemps in Nashville illustrates how the fundamentals of our system’s workings have become obscured by part of the public mythology of the past century. We could call it “Harvard campus activist syndrome”—people who have genuine privilege confusing themselves with the underdogs, the downtrodden, the punk-rockers, the little guys, the rebels. They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man. Maybe we should call it political Boomerism.
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The utility of activism as a political tool, if scrutinized, shows that this confusion has sapped it of its efficacy in turn. This is a criticism now most often made by the left: The mass demonstrations and rioting following the death of George Floyd in the end failed to produce any changes in law. The gold standard for activism-backed political change, the civil rights legislation of the ’60s, did not occur spontaneously from its concomitant activism, but because certain politicians were pressured by constituents to do the hurly-burly of making and passing laws. Now Pelosi in kinte cloth is the victory. In a word, theatrocracy.
So Johnson holds her seat; Pearson and Jones will be returning to the chamber, as their local government bodies, which in Tennessee choose interim representatives who will serve until the next election, have decided they want more of the same. The spectacle has passed without real consequence, which is presumably why Vice President Kamala Harris is on the scene. (Has anyone checked in on her border czar mandate lately?) But these episodes, and the clouds of controversy over accidentally, erode certain basic distinctions that give our political life form.
If those who break the laws expect to continue to hold the power to make the laws, how can we say that we are not under the rule of man? If civil disobedience is a tool for government figures, how can it serve as a tool of principle? Next time, expel them all—megaphones or not.