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Culture wars intensify as legislators face censures, expulsions

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(WASHINGTON) — Censures and expulsions in some state legislatures have become a growing consequence of the intensifying culture wars across the country.

In Montana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma — states with Republican supermajorities in the House — conservative legislators have led the charge in disciplining lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.

Democratic legislators have been expelled from their legislative seat, barred from the House floor, or removed from their committees for a variety of reasons, including allegedly violating parliamentary procedures in the course of their dissent.

“Every time we read about one of these, we hear that it is historic in that state’s context,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego in an interview with ABC News.

The country is facing an increasingly polarized political climate, with debates around transgender rights, gun violence, race, and more continuing to lead the national conversation.

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, says this pattern of disciplining minority legislators prompts the question: “What role do minority or dissenting voices have in legislators?”

“That’s a fundamental part of democracy,” Gillespie said. “It’s a zero sum game if the party that’s in power can’t tolerate dissent from the other side and won’t even allow them to be able to say their perspective. That’s a really sobering commentary on kind of where we are in terms of the democratic deliberation and civility.”

Not only are both sides seemingly drifting further apart in policy, but blue states are getting bluer and red states are getting redder, Kousser says.

“If you’re driving from state to state to state, you drive from a different political world, to one political world to a completely different one,” said Kousser.

He continued, “There’s no issue in which the states are not diverging further now than they did a generation ago.”

Although polarization doesn’t inherently spell trouble for the country’s democracy, Seth Masket, the director of the Center on American Politics, says the disciplinary actions taken to silence some lawmakers on the other side of the political aisle should raise some red flags.

“This is about saying that people in the minority party don’t have a right to a democratic voice. They don’t have a right to representation. They don’t have a right to be in the room,” Masket said.

He later continued, “That’s more than just polarization, that’s … anti-democratic.”

Republicans discipline minority lawmakers

In recent years, both Republicans and Democrats on the federal level have censured legislators of the same party to ensure “party purity,” Masket said. He believes it became a way of protecting a party’s image and group message.

In 2022, the Arizona Democratic Party’s executive committee formally censured Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as a result of her inaction on changing the filibuster rules to pass voting rights reform. Shortly after, the Republican National Committee voted to censure GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, in part for their roles on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

However, he said, the strategy appears to have shifted to target the opposing party.

In April, two Tennessee Democratic legislators were expelled by House Republicans for allegedly violating the chamber’s rules of decorum by participating in a gun control protest at the state capitol building.

Their expulsion led to nationwide outrage.

“This is going to set the tone for the years ahead if it’s not addressed,” said formally expelled Justin Jones in an April interview with ABC News. “And we went to that well [on the floor], calling for them to ban assault weapons. They responded by assaulting democracy.”

The legislators who voted for their expulsion defended the move.

“It’s not possible for us to move forward with the way they were behaving in committee and on the House floor,” state Rep. Jeremy Faison, the chair of the state House Republican Caucus, previously told CNN. “There’s got to be some peace.”

In Montana, the state’s first openly transgender legislator Zooey Zephyr was censured and barred from the House floor after criticizing a gender-affirming care ban for transgender youth and protesting her subsequent silencing by House Republican leaders.

“All representatives are free to participate in House debate while following the House rules. The choice to not follow House rules is one that Representative Zephyr has made,” House Speaker Matt Regier said in an April statement to reporters following the censure. “The only person silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr.”

Zephyr filed a motion to have her seat in the house restored but her emergency order was denied.

“The Republicans have used an undemocratic move to remove the ability for me to represent my constituents on the floor,” Zephyr told ABC News last week. “But as I work to resolve that, I need to be as close as possible, so I can have the conversations with legislators and make sure that I can, at least in some way, make sure the voice of my constituents can be discussed.”

A spokesperson for Montana’s Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen called the lawsuit frivolous.

“This is performance litigation – political activism masquerading as a lawsuit,” said Emily Flower, Knudsen’s press secretary.

In March, Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Mauree Turner was censured after allowing a protester into their office. Turner, the first nonbinary legislator in the U.S., told ABC News in an interview that the protester’s partner had been arrested while demonstrating against an anti-transgender bill and the protester had come to speak to them as a queer lawmaker.

“Someone came to my office to decompress after watching their partner be tackled by highway patrol and taken away and not really sure what was going to happen next,” Turner told ABC News. “In the midst of doing that, I got a knock on my door from a constituent that said, ‘Do you know highway patrol — state troopers have both stairwells to your office blocked, like are in both stairwells to your office?"”

They said they were not approached by law enforcement about the protester in their office and that as a black Oklahoman, “hearing that my office is barricaded by law enforcement officers that haven’t come to talk to me first about anything right, that’s not an easy position for me to be in.”

House Speaker Charles McCall claimed in a statement that Turner “knowingly, and willfully, impeded a law enforcement investigation, harboring a fugitive and repeatedly lying to officers, and used their official office and position to thwart attempts by law enforcement to make contact with a suspect of the investigation.”

In response, House Republicans voted to censure Turner and remove them of their committee responsibilities.

Kousser argues these moves to discipline legislators may have been a “political misstep” by the supermajorities, asserting that it “gave these legislators and minority parties … a platform that they would never have had.”

“Montana already had the votes on this ban on gender-affirming care. Tennessee was not on the verge of passing a major gun control law,” said Kousser.

He continued, “Even though [the discipline] was intended to stop a protest or stop someone from speaking, it had the absolute opposite impact of elevating the profile of these essentially powerless members of the minority party.”

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