Earlier this week, Tennessee became the first state requiring businesses to post a sign alerting customers if they allow transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. This is the latest assault on LGBT+ rights here in the Volunteer State, which also this week became the second state to prohibit hormone treatment for transgender minors. And earlier this year, the legislature passed a law requiring schools to notify parents – who can then opt their kids out – of any curricula including LGBT+ people.
In many ways, it was a fitting end to this year’s legislative session, which wrapped up earlier this month. There isn’t enough Tennessee whiskey to numb the pain inflicted by our Republican lawmakers. This session served as little more than an opportunity for the GOP to fight their Trumpian culture war on the backs of struggling Tennesseans.
Poverty, the quality of our children’s schools, the state of our roads and bridges – these are of no concern to Republicans. Looking back at this year’s legislative “accomplishments” reads like a nightmarish MAGA Christmas List. Republicans slashed in half the amount of time people can claim unemployment and announced plans to opt out of federal pandemic relief come July. They moved to ban critical race theory from schools, and tried to grant immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protestors.
Our Congressional delegation has been equally uninspiring. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn has spent more time posing for the cameras at the border than addressing the needs of her constituents, while Senator Bill Hagerty is going to Mexico and Guatemala rather than working on solutions to Tennessee’s problems. More interested in grandstanding on immigration than helping Tennesseans, both senators voted against pandemic relief and have opposed Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
Our state is facing serious challenges which require serious leaders. Unfortunately for us, Republicans there seem more content yapping away on Fox News than helping our people. Ignoring our rural health crisis, they refuse to expand Medicaid. Despite a rise in gun violence in cities such as Knoxville, they passed a law allowing people to carry guns without a permit. While our state records some of the worst vaccination rates in the country, they banned vaccine passports.
Meanwhile, Tennessee languishes. Its people suffer because Republicans are too busy discriminating against trans people and punishing the poor to do anything to help us. I love this state, but we have so many problems.
In our state, 13.9% of people live in poverty, including 22.6% of children. One in eight Tennesseans, and one in six of our children, don’t have enough to eat. Gentrification in cities like Nashville is pushing low-income residents out of their homes and contributing to a housing crisis. Rural hospitals continue to close at a startling rate, leading to healthcare deserts in some of our poorest and most isolated communities – including in my own county. Our own state government acknowledges we are “among the hardest hit states when it comes to the opioid epidemic,” yet they have done little to combat it. Statistics show fatal overdoses drastically increasing over the past ten years, a decade in which our state legislature and governor’s mansion have both been controlled by Republicans.
It’s enough to make me want to hurl myself off Rocky Top. Each of those statistics I mention, every last one of those problems, has a human face attached to it. I look around and see the poverty and the need for investment. The coal jobs have mostly gone, and East Tennessee – where my family has lived going back so many generations we’ve lost count – is left desolate and destitute.
Every time it storms, I fear my power will go out, because our electrical grid is so antiquated. Lord knows we’ve had plenty of both rain and wind here in Tennessee: 35 tornadoes hit us just last year. It’s one of the countless problems crippling our state right now.
Rather than materially improving the lives of our Tennesseans, Tennessee Republicans have chosen to follow the Donald Trump playbook of scapegoating, fearmongering, and virtue(less) signaling. It’s worse than craven, it’s downright cruel. People are hurting, and Tennessee Republicans don’t give a damn.
This is not a serious party, but these are serious times. What’s happening in the Volunteer State should serve as a warning to the rest of the country. The Republican Party is out of ideas and is not fit for purpose, let alone for governing. The choice is clear: a pointless culture war with Republicans, or pragmatic problem-solving with Democrats.