On Tuesday’s CNN This Morning, the show used the recent expulsion (and eventual reinstatment) of two Democratic state legislators in Tennessee as an opportunity to promote the discredited liberal trope that Republicans were only able to solidly majorities in some states because of gerrymandering, which then allegedly leads them to enact extreme agendas against the will of voters who were unable to vote them out.
Democraict activist and author David Pepper was tapped by CNN to push this recurring liberal spin and to promote his book, Laboratories of Autocracy. Picking up on Republican opposition to gun control in Tennessee, and the expulsion of the two Democrats, Pepper repeatedly accused GOP legislators of being “extreme,” and tied in “gerrymandering” over and over again.
The segment began with a clip of State Representative Justin Jones gloating about being reappointed to the state house after his expulsion. Co-host Poppy Harlow recalled: “Our next guest says it’s emblematic what’s happening in a lot of state houses across the country.” Harlow gushed that “I loved your book,” and then tied in the actions of Tennessee Republicans:
…but I think what’s happened in Tennessee shines a light on what you write — the reason you wrote this book is, “Wake up America — you’re not paying enough attention to what’s happening in states — you’re talking too much and focusing on D.C.”
Pepper — who used to be chair of the Ohio Democratic Party — went right to blaming gerrymandering for Republican power in Tennessee:
…the frontline of the attack on democracy in this country are the state houses like Tennessee’s, like Ohio’s, like Florida’s — for a lot of reasons. No one is paying attention — most people have no idea who these state reps are. They’re gerrymandered to a hilt so there’s almost no choice or democracy in these places.
Again painting Republicans as extreme, he later added (Click “expand”):
Once you see that there’s no accountability at all at the general election level, every incentive these lawmakers face is to be an extremist. You would have done worse as a Republican in a gerrymandered district last week to vote with Democrats not to expunge lawmakers. That’s actually a risk for you to lose your office, but you get ahead by being an extremist.
So, in these states that are locked up through gerrymandering and voter suppression and uncontested races, what you see is all the incentives align for the worst behavior, which is why we see this downward spiral towards extremism, against democracy, and pushing forward bills that are deeply unpopular.
What went unmeantioned was the 2020 presidential election results when Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden in the state by a whopping 61 to 37 percent. Trump also won 92 of the 95 counties in Tennessee. The three counties that Biden did win — Davidson, Shelby, and Haywood — contain only 24 percent of the state’s population, so it’s not shocking that Democrats only hold about one in four seats in the state house.
Notably, before he joined CNN, Harry Enten wrote up an analysis for FiveThirtyEight in which he admitted that geography, substantially more than gerrymandering, with the “self-sorting” of voters into heavily Democrat cities and heavily Republican counties, leads many congressional districts to naturally be either heavily Republican or heavily Democrat.
In fact, Democrat members of Congress tend to get elected in the heavily partisan districts compared to Republicans. In the 2012 elections, for example, there were 89 congressional districts where Democrat Barack Obama won by at least a 2-1 margin, but only 42 districts where Republican Mitt Romney did so.
Pepper went on to assert that Republicans were also able to get away with doing “really bad things” in legislatures in part because there was less media attention at the local level.
This CNN This Morning segment promoting Democrat spin was sponsored in part by ServPro. Their contact information is linked.
CNN This Morning
April 11, 2023
6:44 a.m. Eastern
STATE REP. JUSTIN JONES (D-TN): Today we’re sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence.
POPPY HARLOW: (audio gap) … was reinstated. Tennessee State Rep Justin Jones addressing supporters outside the state capitol in Nashville. Jones and fellow Democratic lawmaker Justin Pearson were removed from their seats last week in the state legislature by the Republican majority for participating in a gun protest in the house chamber accused of breaking decorum.
Let’s step back. How did we get here in the first place? Our next guest says it’s emblematic what’s happening in a lot of state houses across the country. Joining us now, David Pepper, the author of Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wakeup Call from Behind the Lines, also a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. David, it’s good to be with you. I think — you know, I loved your book for — I don’t know, it’s been out for a year and a half, two years — but I think what’s happened in Tennessee shines a light on what you write — the reason you wrote this book is, “Wake up America — you’re not paying enough attention to what’s happening in states — you’re talking too much and focusing on D.C.” What do you make of Tennessee, big picture?
DAVID PEPPER, AUTHOR OF LABORATORIES OF AUTOCRACY: Yeah, it’s absolutely true. I mean, the frontline of the attack on democracy in this country are the state houses like Tennessee’s, like Ohio’s, like Florida’s — for a lot of reasons. No one is paying attention — most people have no idea who these state reps are. They’re gerrymandered to a hilt so there’s almost no choice or democracy in these places.
You know, for example, the Tennessee Republican majority that voted those two out last week, more than half of them didn’t even face a contested election last November. They ignore laws. In Ohio, they violated the constitution to gerrymander their own districts. If we saw in another country all the things that these state houses will do here, we would literally say you’re losing your democracy, but, because it happens here, we really don’t pay attention to it.
We also really get blinded by Washington. There are hundreds of people just like Marjorie Taylor Greene in office in these state houses, but they’re not just on Twitter. They’re not just talking like she and George Santos are. They’re actually passing laws every week attacking democracy, so we really have to focus on these state houses, bring some light to them, and, more importantly than that, bring some accountability to all these people who are behaving in ways that counter democracy in its most basic sense.
DON LEMON: You make a very good point when you talk about what happens in silos, and it doesn’t get the media attention as what’s happening in Congress. And I think that’s very important…
PEPPER: Once you realize — like that Tennessee state house — that most of these, quote unquote, “elected officials” are in districts they can never lose. Once you see that there’s no accountability at all at the general election level, every incentive these lawmakers face is to be an extremist. You would have done worse as a Republican in a gerrymandered district last week to vote with Democrats not to expunge lawmakers. That’s actually a risk for you to lose your office, but you get ahead by being an extremist.
So, in these states that are locked up through gerrymandering and voter suppression and uncontested races, what you see is all the incentives align for the worst behavior, which is why we see this downward spiral towards extremism, against democracy, and pushing forward bills that are deeply unpopular. That’s another deeply important point here. Polls show us that Tennesseeans support the very common sense reforms those protesters and those legislators who were kicked out support.
So, so much of this activity done by these right-wing legislators — legislatures — are done against the majority will of the citizens of their state. So these are institutions that are locked up — they’re advancing an extreme agenda, and ignoring the people of the very states they’re in. All of this happens once you have a world like these state houses have become of zero accountability because of districts these people think can’t lose.
KAITLAN COLLINS: How much of this has to do with local media and the fact that it is shrinking on what is like a daily basis? My home state of Alabama — the three major papers — aren’t publishing. This happened recently in the way that they were. How much does that have to do with this, where local reporters don’t have a platform and the resources to report on things like this?
PEPPER: It’s a massive contributor. The average state house has three reporters covering it, and the local — and that’s sort of the larger state house paper — papers of state house bureaus. The local papers that serve smaller towns are just dying. We know that. And those were the papers that would have covered “here’s what your local state rep did or has been doing.” You add those two things up, and these places are largely anonymous. No one knows who their state reps are — they don’t know what the state budget does — they don’t know how that new law impacts them — and so it’s really dangerous whenever you have a whole lot of power and total anonymity, and that’s what the state houses become.
So the shrinking of local media — not, again, the big papers that have state house bureaus — but especially small papers that would have given you coverage of that legislator from your district. Those combine to be a real problem. Throw into that the fact that a whole lot of these people literally don’t face a contested election in a November — like the ones in Tennessee. That means that no one ever covers these people. They’re not even in an election. There’s no one knocking on doors saying what they’ve done.
That anonymity really creates a problem that, you know, and, by the way, if your goal in life is to get some really bad things done, then a state house turns out to be a perfect place to do it because no one’s paying attention. Go to the state house — you’ll get it done. Go to Washington — you guys will cover it. Papers will cover it. So if you want to get bad stuff done, you go to the places that no one’s covering. So, yes, it’s a big part of the problem.
LEMON: All right, David Pepper, it’s a pleasure having you on. Thank you. Laboratories of —
HARLOW: Thank you. It’s a great read. Your point about the media is so, so — local media — is so spot on.