February 16, 2019, was a night to remember in Williamson County, Tennessee and a reminder of how partisan we can become if we surround ourselves with only people that agree with us. A sitting United States Senator, a congressman, numerous state representatives including the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader gathered to celebrate their November victories. The reception was attended by activists, donors, and insiders. It was held in Franklin, Tennessee about twenty minutes south of Nashville. Williamson County is the beating heart of the Republican party in Tennessee. It is home to Senator Marsha Blackburn, Governor Bill Lee, Speaker Glen Casada, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson. It is also the wealthiest county in Tennessee with a median income of over one hundred and four thousand dollars. The seventh wealthiest county in the country. In Tennessee, it is where politics and power converge.
The event was sort of brag fest for the victories Republicans had in the state of Tennessee despite sustaining huge losses nationally. The two keynote speakers of the evening were Senator Marsha Blackburn and Congressman Mark E. Green. Senator Blackburn spoke first and she thanked volunteers for helping knock on over 1.5 million doors and make over 3 million phone calls during the campaign which lasted just over a year. She also spoke on the history made by her election as she is the first female Senator from the state of Tennessee. She is also one of the first Republican women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. All of this was fairly standard fare for an election celebration coming from a Senator who is not up for re-election for six years. It was not the same type of speech then Congressman Blackburn was giving six months ago before the election. However, the next speech struck me as wildly partisan.
Next up was Congressman Mark Green who represent the seventh congressional district. Congressman Green has become the latest bomb thrower on the Republican side of the isle in the new Congress. He was even quoted on Twitter by President Trump last week for calling Michael Cohen a “fake witness”. Congressman Green’s speech was less about his election victory and more about throwing red meat to the base. He talked about socialism coming to America and the popularity of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He talked about how Democrat Governor Ralph Northam and other politicians “casually float[ed] infanticide on the airwaves.” If it was going to get a reaction from the crowd, he was going to say it. The speech was straight out of Republican campaign speechwriter’s handbook: a Ronald Reagan quote, at least one bible verse, and a hit on the fake news media. I thought the speech was strange because this was a fairly formal affair mostly packed with members of the donor class, not a campaign rally. He just got elected anyway so what is with this partisan firebrand speech? Then it dawned on me, he is going to run in the Republican primary for Senate to replace Lamar Alexander. It all made sense. Senator Blackburn is safe for another six years so she can dial back her rhetoric, but if (when) Congressman Green runs for Senate he has to ramp up his rhetoric and speak to the base.
To win a Republican primary in a state that Donald Trump won in 2016 by twenty-six points, the candidates have to go far to the right. In our state, we have a tendency to separate ourselves from those with opposite political views. Only three counties voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016: Davidson, Shelby, and Haywood. Davidson and Shelby home to Nashville and Memphis, respectively. In the 2018 midterm election, Phil Bredesen, Democrat candidate for Senate, received seventy one percent of the vote in Davidson county. On the other side, Marsha Blackburn received nearly eighty percent of the vote in Wayne county. We literally separate ourselves geographically and I fear this is leading to greater polarization. My grandfather always says “I don’t know a single person who is voting for these crazy Democrats.” But maybe they are not crazy, maybe they just have different life experiences and different views. Maybe if we surrounded ourselves with people that do not share all of our views, we could understand each other a little bit better. Instead of calling people we disagree with crazy, we could just disagree.
Group polarization is when individuals in groups of like-minded people get more extreme. The event served as a fascinating reminder of how Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party. Williamson County is the only county in the state that didn’t vote for Trump in the Republican primary. They chose Rubio. You would never have known that from this event. One mechanism that pushes people towards polarized extremes is reputation. Cass Sunstein wrote “People want to be perceived favorably by other group members.” I believe that the politicians at the event believe they will be thought of as weak if they do not totally defend President Trump.
This event was fascinating because it was a stark reminder of how different a campaign speech is from a relatively apolitical speech from a politician is. The divide in our country is real. The differences are real. However, the hyper-partisan, never-ending elections are having a detrimental effect on our democracy.
- Photo by George Walker IV (The Tennesseean), “U.S. Senator-elect Marsha Blackburn speaks to supporters at the election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Franklin, Tennessee, under Creative Commons Zero License”