There was an era of Tennessee history, persisting from sometime in the 19th century to just two or three decades ago, when a citizen might declare, "I vote for the man, not the party," and that remark, basically a euphemism, could be translated to mean, "I vote Republican."
That was in the long heyday of the old Solid Democratic South, when the party that claims its lineage from Jefferson and Jackson ruled throughout the domain of the old Confederacy and real electoral contests occurred not at general-election time but during Democratic primaries, the results of which were referred to in news articles as being "tantamount to election."
Even in more recent times, someone could drive from Memphis to Nashville and, if mindful of local political traditions along the way, could make a mental note upon entering Henderson County (county seat: Lexington), "Here's that Republican county." For reasons entirely place-specific, Henderson had been a GOP enclave since Civil War times. These days, however, there is nothing to distinguish it from the rest of West Tennessee or from the state at large. With few exceptions — essentially two, Shelby County and Davidson County (Nashville) — all of Tennessee has acquired a deep red hue, and even in those two major metropolitan areas, Republican influence is ascendant. (Indeed, Shelby County's Republicans regularly defy what is in theory a demographic edge for the Democrats and dominate elections for countywide offices.)
So it was that when Jimmy Naifeh, the retiring legendary Tipton County state representative who served as Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives for almost two decades, addressed his colleagues last week on the last day of his last legislative session, he declared: "It is time for changes, because the elections told us two years ago that they wanted this particular leadership in place. The Republicans have the votes, and we're following along best as we can."
Lest that might seem too abject, Naifeh said, when asked about it the next day, "I think the pendulum will change. After seeing how the Republicans have tried to govern, which they've done a pretty poor job of the last few years, people began to see that Democrats are the ones who really take care of people." But, especially with GOP-dictated redistricting and the advent this year of a photo-ID voting law that would seem to disproportionately inconvenience Democratic voters, Naifeh's morning-after remarks might seem a bit more wishful than realistic.
Back in the day, Republicans in Tennessee used to campaign for a "two-party system," while, meaningfully, leaving the name of their party off their campaign signs. These days, the absence of a party label on a campaign sign generally spells "Democrat," but the need for a genuine two-party system continues, regardless of where the pendulum is on its latest arc. Much of the mischief that was done in the 107th General Assembly (and it was abundant) stems from the lack of a genuine contrast between parties representing two live and well — and competitive — philosophies.
Go ahead, vote "for the person, not the party" (that's how we'd say it these days), but hope that this year, or sometime soon, you'll have parties, as well as persons, to choose from.
This week it starts in earnest — the questioning. You can't escape it. It comes from your spouse, your kids, your parents — at the breakfast table, in the car, on the phone, via email: "What do you want for Christmas?" ...