How the Two-Party System Went Off the Rails in Shelby County 

On Saturday morning, a line of local Republican Party members stationed themselves on the northwest corner of the intersection of Poplar and Kirby Parkway, waving Trump/Pence signs and those of local GOP candidates. When passing motorists honked or shouted encouragement to them, they reciprocated with cheers of their own.

Most of the sign-bearers were recognizable as activist members of the Shelby County Republican Party, and, as one of them commented to a bystander, "We're the only political party in Shelby County!" This was a reference to the fact that the demonstrators' counterpart, the Shelby County Democratic Party, had been dissolved in August — technically, "decertified" — by state Democratic chair Mary Mancini, presumably with the approval or acquiescence of the party's state committee.

click to enlarge Mary Mancini
  • Mary Mancini

Mancini's action had come after months of members of the official Shelby County Democratic party squabbling over what to do about the matter of funds unaccounted for during the tenure of a former local chairman, Bryan Carson, who had resigned under pressure the previous year. Some wanted to prosecute, others wanted to settle, and, when Mancini attempted to mandate a settlement from Nashville, a majority of the local party members rebelled against both her and newly elected Shelby County party chair Michael Pope, who had independently signed off on a settlement.

Mancini's decertification action would follow in short order, but it would be unfair to regard it as solely a response to the Bryan Carson affair. As Mancini had noted in an earlier warning statement, the Shelby County Democratic Party had undergone "many years of dysfunction."

The SCDP's disorder had many origins: the ferment arising from demographic shifts in the party's base; a loss of funding as deep-pocketed donors either passed away or turned toward independence or Republicanism; a running dispute over whether the party should adopt an open-door or closed-door policy toward newcomers with mixed or uncertain political credentials; the disabling residue of past scandals like the Tennessee Waltz; and — ironically, under the  circumstances — a reduction in party influence and morale stemming from the weakening of Democratic strength in the state at large.

Finally, the local party was riven by too many ego trips and pedantic arguments over procedure.

So much for the SCDP as such. It should be said, though, that in the 2016 election year, various other groups did their best to sustain the burden of political activism — among them, the Germantown Democratic Club, the Young Democrats, and the Democratic Women of Shelby County; civic organizations and politically oriented churches in the inner city; Democratic-leaning environmentalists and pro-choice advocates.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Republican Party endured — and could boast at its several regional club meetings and various annual banquets an impressive roll call of elected public officials. But, as Saturday's line-up at Poplar and Kirby indicated, its center of gravity had moved eastward over the years, reflecting suburban sprawl and white flight. Like the national version of the GOP, the local party had goals of broadening its ethnic and social base and had made some gains in that regard among African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, though these were essentially modest and incremental.

And, while the Trump phenomenon of 2016 may have redirected some alienated members of the white working and middle classes toward the GOP — again, as in the nation at large — the signals of xenophobia, misogyny, and personal erraticism emanating at regular intervals from the party's presidential nominee seem clearly to have put off an indeterminate number of the professional classes and soccer moms who have made up so much of the Republican ecosystem in recent years.

The GOP rank and file would seem to be maintaining their loyalty, and the statewide Republican ascendancy is in no danger of immediate overthrow, though new rivalries in its infrastructure and scandals of its own — the Jeremy Durham affair in the General Assembly being a case in point — bode for possible difficulty in the future, especially if, at a time when lifestyle issues seem as dominant as traditional economic ones,  millennials in the state's major cities, left-leaning in the main, begin to assert their strength more actively.

The bottom line: Isolated evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, neither major party has the coherence of yore. Both have gone off the rails to some degree, and the 2016 election could determine which one gets back on track.

Senior editor Jackson Baker is the Flyer's political columnist.

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