Measuring Frankly 

The fuss over social issues in the Tennessee General Assembly may have obscured some real ends.


Few works of social analysis have been so celebrated for their fundamental insight into political change as has Thomas Frank's 2005 tome What's the Matter With Kansas?.  

What Frank maintained, essentially, was that social issues had functioned as red herrings to obscure ongoing shifts in economic power.

Abortion, gay rights, illegal immigration, and various forms of racial and cultural strangeness: All of these, according to Frank, had served as bait to estrange the middle and working classes from their political roots.

Applying the Frank thesis to the 2011 legislative session in Tennessee yields a mixed bag.

Abortion: In its final days, the legislature approved a constitutional amendment (subject to a statewide vote in 2014) that put the state on record as being "neutral" in its attitude toward abortion — a move regarded as a precondition for any future scaling back of the state's various legal responsibilities vis-à-vis abortion, and it cut Planned Parenthood out of the loop on Title IX federal funding for family planning services.

Gay rights: Both chambers of the legislature passed and Governor Bill Haslam signed into law SB 632/HB 600, legislation that prohibits local jurisdictions from passing ordinances against workplace discrimination stronger than the provisions of state law. Among other things, this action nullifies a recent action by the Nashville Metro Council and nips in the bud a prospective measure in the Memphis City Council.

The notorious "Don't Say Gay" bill of state senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) got final-week passage in the Senate but only after its language was purged of direct reference to homosexuality. The bill, which never advanced in the House, now restricts classroom instruction in grades K through 8 to "natural human reproduction science" — a limitation, it must be said, of considerable ambiguity.

Illegal immigration: A bill allowing Arizona-style interrogation of suspect illegals bogged down in committee in both chambers. The clock ran out as well on an "E-Verify" bill requiring state agencies to electronically verify eligibility of applicants for public benefits. And a bill requiring public school students to prove their citizenship status fizzled out early, as did a bill requiring all driver's license tests to be in English.

All in all, one could argue that there was, if anything, a legislative backlash against strict immigration measures.

Both chambers did pass SB 0016/HB 0007 by the busy duo of state senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and state representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville). The bill requires all Tennessee voters to show a photo ID before casting their ballots. While this has a tangential bearing on the immigration issue, it was regarded by Democratic opponents as more of a device to suppress turnout from poor and working-class voters without white-collar forms of identification.

The so-called Sharia bill (SB 1028), introduced by the indefatigable Ketron, raised religious-freedom issues in its original form, which directly condemned specific Islamic practices as potentially subversive but was scrubbed clean of any references to Islam or any other religion before its final passage as a generalized — and arguably redundant — internal security measure.

Another measure that may well have generated controversy beyond its desserts was HB 368 by Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville). Widely referred to as the "Creationist Bill," it did in fact mention "evolution" and "the chemical origins of life" as subjects earmarked for protected "critical thinking" in Tennessee classrooms. While the bill passed the House, it was taken off notice in the Senate — perhaps because of its foolish inclusion of "climate change" as a suspect subject during a spring of unprecedented violent weather in Tennessee.

Gun bills? Judges were enabled to pack. Faculty members not.

For all of the attention generated by the social issues in this legislative session, they seem ultimately to have been so many asides — diversions from bills, having mainly to do with economics, education, and political control, that were passed with less fuss and bother than might otherwise have been the case:

"Tort reform," limiting economic damages in medical malpractice and workplace injury cases; enabling of direct corporate contributions to political campaigns and elimination of key restrictions on in-session fund-raising by sitting legislators; sweeping educational changes in tenure and collective bargaining that curtailed the power of teachers' unions and enlarged those of education entrepreneurs; ex parte legislation on behalf of and other companies locating in Tennessee. And, as they say in show biz: more, much more.

Not exactly blips on the radar screen, but maybe helped into being by all that other ambient noise.

Senior editor Jackson Baker writes the Politics column for the Flyer.

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