University of Memphis

Shelby County, Tennessee GOP meeting: Trump Rally or Democracy at Work? by Richard Hoffsommer @ The University of Memphis

The evening began with a call to prayer and a moment for the Pledge of Allegiance. Up until then, the room had been full of noise: folks had been chatting, laughing, and simply enjoying one another’s company. Having used his microphone to capture the boisterous room’s attention, everyone quickly bowed their heads: he need not implore that they pause for prayer. Upon conclusion of the Pledge, one GOP member loudly joked, “look, no one took a knee!” A few murmurs here and there did not compare with the reaction to the State GOP leader’s crude, yet funny, joke later in the evening. Welcome to the Shelby County, Tennessee GOP.

The meeting strictly adhered to a pre-set schedule that consisted of the opening (prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, roll-call), approval of September minutes, reports (treasurer’s, corresponding secretary’s report, committee’s, and finally the chairman’s), an update of the Tennessee GOP, old business, new business, announcements, and finally the adjournment. The President of the local GOP Chapter moved along with the formalities rather quickly, giving the floor first to the accountant and then to the secretary. The former reviewed their current budget, proudly stating that the group has never before held such a sum of money. As an outsider, the cash on hand most certainly surprised me as I never thought that such a small, localized political organization would be able to gather such an amount: how wrong I was. The secretary then briefly discussed a list of cards that had been sent, including one for the judge seated next to me who had just been in a car wreck. The group laughed and proclaimed that the “wishing you a speedy recovery” card had most certainly worked its magic. The secretary concluded her report by reading aloud a thoughtful thank you note that had been addressed to the local party as a whole.

Next, the President gave the floor to a man touched who touched on open districts within the county. These specifically defined, geographically bound areas within Shelby County remain vital to the strength of the GOP in West Tennessee he argued. He therefore adamantly insisted that people begin consider running, or at the very least, begin searching for viable candidates. The president proceeded to give the floor to a woman who discussed their activity within the community, specifically, their endeavor to register more Republican voters. She reported that she along with other local GOP members had represented Shelby County at the Germantown Festival, Kirby Pines, The Village (the latter two both being retirement communities), as well as another local festival. The entire process, both well organized and focused, remained fascinating and captivating from start to finish. As the Grand Old Party of Shelby County had been fortunate enough to have in its presence the leader of the Tennessee GOP party, the County GOP President quickly cleared the way for Mr. Golden to begin his Tennessee GOP Update to the crowd of nearly 40 white men and women, average age of 60.

The ensuing thirty minutes were without question both the most entertaining and pertinent segment of the evening. Mr. Golden touched on a myriad of topics ranging from support for Trump within the county to changes in the state GOP bylaws.   Mr. Golden remains a busy man, having driven over 50k miles in the past few months. As the GOP State leader, he bears a great responsibility, a responsibility that he clearly takes rather seriously. The sharpest dressed individual in the room, as well as being a refined public speaker, Mr. Golden led a strong conversation in which he clearly laid out the most recent local GOP news and agenda. He acknowledged a local tiff within the GOP in Fayette County as they have proposed a new bylaw that would require all candidates to explicitly declare the party platform on which they propose to run. As he articulated, they do not want a Republican running on an Independent ticket: this bylaw seeks to prevent political cleavages within the GOP. He thanked the current President of Fayette County’s GOP party for her strong stance and unwillingness to budge from their new position: he joked that he is now the second most hated person in her county behind the local GOP President herself.

Perhaps the most significant change in GOP state bylaws comes from the fact that now, if a candidate is to be protested, two “bona fide” Republicans living in the same district must protest one’s running. Previously, any individual residing within the state had the right to anonymously protest a candidate’s running: this new bylaw obviously seeks to keep local politics local while further expanding the transparency of said local politics. He also touched on the meaning of “bona fide” and what exactly constitutes that seemingly ever-changing definition. Lastly, Mr. Golden proclaimed the importance of maintaining truly qualified candidates, citing a man who had run as a Democrat in Nashville but now seeks to run as a Republican in Memphis: the GOP has the right, he argues, to protect their ballot and party and will continue to change bylaws as they see fit.

One may argue that the GOP is abusing the democratic institutions on which its foundations lay, and by doing so, is undermining democracy as a whole. This, one may protest, is clearly eroding the quality of democracy and serves as a stepping-stone to a more authoritarian governance in the future. For example, the passing of new, more stringent bylaws that narrow the playing field takes away the voice of the greater population, and consolidates powers in the hands of the elite few. Given that a hybrid democracy such as a “frankenstate,” as put forward by Kim Scheppele, “hide[s] non-democracy in plain sight” while “appear[ing] democratic but provide[s] hopeless odds for anyone to challenge the existing distribution of power effectively” is the nearest form of illiberal governance, clearly, there is nothing over which one is to fret [1].

Section two, article one of the Bylaws of the Tennessee Republican Party states, “the purposes of the Party include, but are not limited to, electing Republican candidates to office on the national, state and local levels; recruiting Republican candidates to run for office; assisting the national Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and other Republican organizations on the national level in carrying out their purposes; raising funds for election campaigns and other Republican purposes; recruiting membership in the Republican Party; increasing public awareness of the Republican position on public issues; and fostering good citizenship in general:” in light of this, I left rather impressed having actually borne witness to local politics in action [2].  The fact that the congregation invoked Trump’s name a mere time or two honestly took me aback, for I had expected the scope and nature of the evening to have been far different than what it turned out to be.

After the meeting had adjourned, both the President of the county and state chapter made an intentional effort to introduce themselves as they had neither seen or met me before. Further, an elected official began questioning why I had been there, what I do, what did I learn, what do I think, etc. I enjoyed conversing with him as he shed light and told stories of local politics previously unbeknownst to me. The focus had been the party, the GOP: what actions can they take, as individuals and as a group, to advance their platform.  I finished the evening by discussing the differences between a republic and a democracy with a local author: that’s a story for another time.






[1]: Scheppele, Kim.  “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘”Frankenstate.'” European Forum Threats to Democracy in Eastern Europe.  Winter 2013.

[2]: Bylaws of The Tennessee Republican Party.

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