There’s a growing trend among American conservatives to “cancel” dissent.
In Tennessee, three lawmakers were censured and two were expelled from the Legislature for participating in a rally about gun control. Now in Montana, Rep. Zooey Zephyr has been expelled by the Republican-controlled Legislature by a vote of 68–32.
These are dehumanizing moves aimed directly at people with whom Republicans simply have a hard time accepting.
In Tennessee, Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, and Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, African Americans, were put on trial for nothing more than violating some strange sense of decorum. The white woman was found not guilty by a single vote. The two Black males were expelled. Then the Republican majority had the nerve to say this had nothing to do with color.
In Montana, the expelled lawmaker is transgender and dared to speak against a Republican-driven ban on gender-affirming health care for minors, saying those who vote for the bill would have “blood on your hands” — an apparent reference to the exceptionally high suicide rate for untreated gender dysphoria. For her dissent, she has been banned from speaking the remainder of the legislative term.
Banned from speaking!
“These actions strike at the very core of what it means to be an American.”
These actions strike at the very core of what it means to be an American. These are what national security experts would call “imminent threats” to the well-being of democracy and the American people.
America historian Gordon Wood, whose academic specialty is the American Revolution, argues that in one decade the American colonists shattered the intricate ties of obligation, deference and respect that bound the prerevolutionary social order in Colonial America. Americans changed from a people little different from the hierarchical societies of European monarchies to one that took up the truly radical notion that individuals were both the source of a government’s legitimacy and its greatest hope for progress.
In Rhode Island, there is an 11-foot-tall statue that stands at the very top of the statehouse dome in Providence. Rhode Islanders commissioned this statue and called it The Independent Man. The revolutionary symbolism can hardly be missed: America is home to independent-minded individuals for whom a primary virtue is disrespect for authority. Disrespect and dissent are key to democracy.
Let’s make this simple and clear: The legislatures of Tennessee and Montana have acted in ways that are un-American.
The actions of the two Republican-controlled legislatures are those of anti-democracy. I don’t know what the Republicans in Tennessee and Montana are thinking, but they are not thinking or acting like Americans.
Democracy requires dissent. American public culture requires the social possibilities expressed through civil activism and dissent. Examples of such potential are especially abundant in the last century, ranging from the heroic Seattle General Strike of February 1919 to the Vietnam-era resistance efforts so broadly publicized by the print and broadcast media of the period. The Civil Rights movement, in its dissent through nonviolence, changed more than two centuries of unjust laws. The gay rights movement has led to same-sex marriage.
Without dissent, the working men and women of America still would not have a living wage. Without dissent, women still would not have the right to vote, still would be treated as the “inferior sex.” Without dissent, African Americans still would be barely above slavery, with rights still denied and equality still a dream. Without dissent, most gays and lesbians still would be in the closet.
“Dissent is a key word in the vocabulary of a democratic people.”
Rhetorical scholar Robert Ivie, in a quote worth repeating in its longer form, argues: “Dissent is a key word in the vocabulary of a democratic people. A healthy democracy encourages the rhetorical act of dissent as a right of free speech and an antidote to political repression. Dissent is the balancing point between stability and change, cleavage and consensus, politics and revolution, life and decay. It should be tolerated, not censured by authorities, punished by law, or otherwise suppressed. Democracy cannot be true to the principle of self-governance when dissent is stifled, and public opinion is manipulated by ruling elites. When dissent is suppressed, especially in times of crisis, democracy itself is lost and the people are turned against themselves.”
The protests of Republicans are a protest against the beating heart of democracy. Their actions are un-American.
It is not patriotic to expel members of a state legislature for disagreement with the majority party.
It is not patriotic to use power to dehumanize people with whom those in power disagree.
It is not patriotic to discriminate against fellow representatives because of the color of their skin or the reality of their sexuality or gender.
It is not patriotic when elected officials call for martial law against peaceful protesters.
It is not patriotic to constantly demean one’s political opponents as “crazy,” “mentally ill,” “despicable,” and “sick.” It is not patriotic to try to end democracy.
A true patriot wants the nation to live up to its founding ideals — freedom of speech, freedom of dissent, equality and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A true patriot carries on a lover’s quarrel with America, recognizing its virtues and its vices and praying to God all our ugly flaws can be healed.
A true patriot seeks to bind up the nation’s wounds rather than continuing to inflict new wounds on fellow Americans.
A true patriot defends the anchor institutions of our nation: the free press, the people, the courts, the legislatures, the institutions of religion.
The Republican legislators of Tennessee and Montana are not patriots.
They are un-American and unpatriotic. These are harsh but necessary charges.
One final charge must be laid at the feet of these unfeeling legislators. They are part of a growing authoritarianism that threatens to evolve into tyranny and fascism. This is America, and you don’t get to have political lynch mobs and call it a good day’s work.
This is not how Americans perform. These actions have nothing to do with democratic principles. They are part of a growing authoritarianism fueled by white, mostly male, conservatives who are running scared that they are losing their way of life — a way of life that has not been good for all other Americans.
We can’t allow the repression of hard-earned rights to be trampled on by power-drunk legislators who can’t tolerate disagreement, who can’t stand to be told they don’t have the right to tell us what to say, where to stand, how to act.
And Baptists — of all Americans — should be leading the charge to demand elected officials allow dissent. This is our birthright. It is our legacy. It is our cause. Without dissent, we would have been silenced too.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor and writer in New York state. He is the author of 10 books, including his latest, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy.
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