The rhetoric within the Republican Party in Tennessee continued to escalate this week over Common Core with one Republican legislator calling the Governor a traitor to the party. As I read some of what’s been said about the role Common Core may have had in Republican primaries, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities to other issues that changed the complexion of Tennessee politics from blue to red.
The Income Tax
One issue that changed the complexion of Tennessee politics from blue to red was the income tax. During 2001-2002, leaders of the Democratic Party, along with the help of a few Republicans, including the governor at the time, pushed for an income tax. Ultimately, an income tax bill was voted on in the state House. It did not pass, but it got enough votes to make Tennessee voters really mad. And their anger played out in the coming elections.
As I reviewed the list of my former colleagues in the General Assembly during those years, one thing that seemed to be common to the Democrats who lost re-election or chose to retire was their support for the income tax. That issue was a bell-weather issue and remains one to this day.
But another issue worked against the Democrats and played to the Republican’s favor; it was the life-abortion issue.
Beginning in 2001, Republicans, me being one of them, began to push what is now known as Amendment 1 that will be on the ballot in November. Amendment 1 is an amendment to the state constitution that would reverse the decision of our state Supreme Court in which it found a “right to abortion” and struck down a number of our laws designed to protect women and the unborn.
Not being for the legislation that was the precursor to Amendment 1 on the ballot was a death knell to a number of Democrats (in addition to the one Republican who ever voted against putting it on the ballot).
The Ladder to Republican Success
The income tax and abortion were the electoral issues that really began to change the complexion of the General Assembly. Republicans rode to the majority on the back of fiscal and social conservatives. One cannot deny the role that gun rights have played in the Republican party in recent years, but the two legs of the ladder on which the state’s Republican Party rose to its current dizzying heights are fiscal and social conservatism.
A Deepening Divide?
Like the two issues that divided the Democrats from the Republicans, if Republicans are not careful, Common Core and traditional social issues may divide the Republican Party itself. In this last election cycle, it seemed that the divide in the party between fiscal and social conservatives became more pronounced. Though one might not readily see how Common Core fits that divide, it does.
Those who push Common Core seem concerned that our students are not learning what is needed to have a strong economy in a global marketplace. They tend to be fiscal conservatives.
On the other side are those who seem concerned that Common Core elevates political correctness over our founding principles and gives too great a nod to big government, particularly the federal government, and to globalism.
However, many in this latter camp are also those we might call “traditional” social conservatives, those concerned about abortion, parental rights in education, the homosexual agenda, and threats to religious liberty. The two “sides” are not identical, but that’s what makes things so explosive politically—when you add them together, you begin to find a lot of upset people.
Finding a Way Forward
The bottom line is that Tennessee Republicans must find a way to address the issues social conservatives care about. Personally, I don’t think we have to choose between high academic standards and keeping liberal political philosophies and political correctness out of our schools. I also don’t think we have to choose between being socially conservative and being fiscally conservative. In fact, the former makes the latter possible.
But I do think this: Smiles of feigned concern and pats on the head of social conservatives by Republican fiscal conservatives may not work to keep everybody in the hoped-for big tent of the Republican party happy. In this last election cycle the rumblings were audible. If the trend continues, expect the rhetoric to escalate and for there to be more political bloodshed in the 2016 primaries.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.