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Tribalism: Do real issues ever attract Tennessee voters?

Ed Wolff • Dec 2, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Well, the midterm election is over. As expected, there has been a plethora of analyses. One thing is certain from the results, the state of Tennessee is solidly Republican. The effect of this is what I would like to discuss.

Let’s look first at the election results as it affects our area from a statewide basis. The governor’s office was won by Bill Lee, who is a newcomer to the political arena. His opponent was Karl Dean, the former mayor of Nashville, successful as a governmental leader. Lee won 59.6 percent to 38.5 percent.

The Senate seat, vacated by Sen. Bob Corker, was won by Rep. Marcia Blackburn by 54.7 percent to a former successful governor, Phil Bredesen, who garnered 43.9 percent of the vote.

Rep. Phil Roe outdistanced Dr. Marty Olsen 77.1 percent to 21 percent. (Dr. Olsen ran because of his concern for Tennessee citizens’ need for health care.)

Just looking at these results, the question goes begging, “Do issues, if any, attract voters.”

Look at our local political races for state House offices and compare them with selected other political races of the House Assembly.

Sullivan County, District 2: 75.9 percent (R), 21.6 percent (D).

Washington County, District 6: 68.1 percent (R), 31.9 percent (D).

Washington County, District 7: 66.5 percent (R), 33.5 percent (D).

Blount County, District 8: 72.2 percent (R), 27.8 percent (D).

Blount County, District 20: 70.5 percent (R), 29.5 percent (D).

McMinn/Monroe, District 23 80.7 percent (R), 19.3 percent (D).

Coffee/Warren, District 47: 66.2 percent (R), 33.8 percent (D).

Weakley, et. al., District 76: 78.0 percent (R), 22.0 percent (D).

McNairy County: District 94 74.0 percent (R), 26.0 percent (D).

It is obvious that in all these Tennessee House districts, the Republicans are dominant. House districts in Washington County represent a slight drop in this dominance by the Republicans possibly due to an urban influence, coupled with new citizens from outside the county. An urban influence is not effective in Blount County. Coffee/Warren counties cover an area between Chattanooga and Nashville. Sullivan County is an urban area, dominated by Eastman Chemical Co., with little movement of new residents from outside the county. The last four counties are definitely rural.

From my point of view, all these statistics reflect a tribal atmosphere throughout Tennessee. The tribal atmosphere becomes more evident when we look at a specific issue — health care.

First of all, throughout the nation, citizens’ health care is a major issue of concern. Nationally, the electorate have supported expansion. Thirty-three states (including Maine), before the midterm election, had adopted Medicaid expansion. Idaho, Utah and Nebraska, three solid red states, approved Medicaid expansion through the referendum process in this election cycle. (Tennessee does not provide for referendums, keeping the electorate from letting its voice be heard on a major issue like this.)

Two more states, with new governors, will enact Medicaid expansion. In all of the states with Medicaid experience, none have reversed their decision after its becoming active. We know why, because results from five years are now available. The positive results related to expansion have been impressive. Mortgage foreclosures due to medical expenses have been reduced significantly. Buying power in local economies have risen. Furthermore, the workforce is healthier and a significant number of new jobs are being created.

In Tennessee, over 60 percent percent of its citizens are in favor of Medicaid expansion. Yet, the Tennessee legislature continues to ignore the wishes of the electorate. Statewide, over 300,000 citizens are “in the gap,” excluded from coverage, 14,000 of which are in Washington County. Over $7 billion of Tennessee federal taxes have been redirected to other states. At least 11 hospitals in rural Tennessee have closed, some in counties cited above. What is baffling is that the voting results throughout most of Tennessee, rural counties especially, continue to support the legislature’s lack of action, against their own wellbeing. That’s why I consider Tennessee to be tribal in its political identity.

The Republican politicians know this. That’s one of the reasons why they can continue to refuse to adopt Medicaid expansion for the benefit of its citizens. You might ask what reasons they give.

The most popular explanation by legislators for denying Medicaid expansion is the extreme cost of TennCare in its original form. Many Tennesseans lost coverage when TennCare was significantly cut back. At that time, the federal government covered 65 percent of the cost. However it is now 90 percent. There are other reasons offered by anti-expansion forces. One representative offered the ridiculous comment that adopting Medicaid expansion would be “socialistic,” which, I guess, would place it in the category of Social Security and Medicare.

What the electorate does not seem to know is about are right-wing PACs called the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity. They are funded, in part, by the Koch Brothers as a 501(c)4 non-profit organization. Funding of those PACs remain anonymous. Funds from these PACs are channeled to conservative politicians’ campaign funds. Both organizations have strongly opposed Medicaid expansion. From my point of view, Republican candidates’ have benefitted from these PACs, while tribal supporters have remained uninformed, listening to irrational explanations from their legislative representatives.

With the existence of tribalism, we need to look past political parties and form bipartisan coalitions that demand Medicaid expansion from our political representatives.

Ed Wolff is a retired minister and progressive activist.

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