The General Assembly isn’t extremist. Neither are Tennesseans | George Korda

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George Korda Guest columnist

Not everyone who disagrees with you or who doesn’t believe the same things you believe is an extremist.

But blunderbussed charges of “extremism” are pretty much what it’s come to in American politics. It’s easy: I don’t like what that person says or believes, so they’re extremists who endanger all right-thinking people. It’s a staple of social media threads, of online comments made after news stories, and discussion on political talk shows. Everything in politics seems to be descending into this abyss.

There are certainly extremists among us. The Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan, eco-terrorists, religious terrorists, violent anarchists or communists devoted to destroying American capitalism by any means necessary are examples of extremists and extremist groups.

However, in modern America, an extremist is all things to many people. The “extremist” tag is often placed on those who say that an unborn baby’s life shouldn’t be ended on demand. “Extremist” is directed at Tennesseans and Americans who question whether elements of critical race theory are taught in public schools, or who advocate for school voucher programs. If you’re a female who doesn’t want a male who identifies as a female sharing your locker room, or a parent who feels the same way, you’re an extremist, it’s said, or manipulated by them.

Why I disagree with Keel Hunt’s column

On Jan. 11, the News Sentinel published a column on extremism in the Tennessee General Assembly by Keel Hunt, author and a senior member of former Gov. Lamar Alexander’s administration. I met Keel in 1981, shortly after becoming a state spokesman. He supervised a project in which I rewrote all the state government department descriptions in the Blue Book, a compilation of state government information. We played basketball together Saturday mornings in games played by Alexander administration members and the Capitol Hill Press Corps. Keel has accomplished much, and I hold him in great respect.

But I disagree with his column, “Where are Tennessee Republicans who put state over party and moderation over extremism?” for two reasons. First, it suggests any legislator who takes a position at variance with what the column says are must-do items is an ‘extremist.’; second, by extension, any Tennessean who agrees with those legislators, or perhaps even who doesn’t oppose them, can be similarly indicted.

The column criticizes the Republican-led legislature for being “extremist.” But assigning such labels based on political, ideological or social differences cuts off the ability to discuss them. In short, you’re an extremist if your views don’t agree with mine.

That’s not how it works in our country.

While naming as bad ideas a series of “extremist” social and political issues undertaken ‒ or not ‒ by the legislature, he said, “Three other shameless examples describe our dysfunctional new day.” These involve gun legislation, Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed school voucher program, and a potential rejection of $1.8 billion in federal education funding.

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Gun ownership in Tennessee

According to a Wall Street Journal article on gun ownership, some 47% of Tennessee households own at least one firearm. As there are nearly 2.7 million Tennessee households, 1,270,000 households have at least one gun. According to FBI crime reports, in 2022 there were 559 homicide incidents in the state. Fourteen were committed with rifles – all rifles, of any kind. Looking further, 37 homicides were with a knife or a cutting instrument, and 23 were committed with a blunt object.

One person’s common-sense solution is another person’s infringement on a constitutional right. These issues must be discussed and debated. But it’s easier, and somewhat morally satisfying, to insult people by labeling them as extremist or cowardly if they don’t get with the acceptable program.

School vouchers and federal education funding

With respect to school vouchers, my recent column on education showed that Tennessee and the country have been failing for decades on that front. It’s not arguable: the facts are the facts. Throughout Tennessee there are parents of limited means who would undoubtedly love the opportunity to send their children to a better-performing school.

A voucher program would give a choice to parents who at this moment don’t have one. An education website, Betterstudentoutcomesnow.com, notes that Tennessee spends about $10 billion annually on K-12 education. This funding supports marginal-to-mediocre total outcomes. It doesn’t make a person extremist to explore vouchers that might turn around some children’s educational lives.

Keel criticizes the legislature for hesitating to accept $1.8 billion in additional federal education funding. There are people who feel similarly: It’s free money, and if we don’t take it someone else will, so why aren’t we taking it with both hands out? Legislators pushing back against the freebie cite federal government requirements as a concern, and there are always strings attached when the feds start waving money around.

Debt in the U.S. just keeps getting worse

But there’s another reason that accepting money ought to be debated: we can’t afford it. Think of U.S. taxpayers as in water over their heads, swimming against the tide with anvils tied to their ankles. Individually and collectively, U.S. taxpayers owe more than $34 trillion – rising at the rate of $5.2 billion daily. As economist Herbert Stein once observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it must stop.”

The Congressional Budget Office said years ago that U.S. debt is on an unsustainable path – and since then it’s only gotten worse. At some point, for the national good – indeed, for our nation’s stability – the idea of “free” money must be rejected, because this level of borrowing can’t go on forever. It will stop. And when it does, it’ll be ugly. The pain will be loud, long and anguished.

Lamar Alexander, Howard Baker and other past Tennessee Republican leaders were successful because they practiced a form of partisan pragmatism. While working for Alexander, I once heard him say, “A governor’s job is to decide on a program he thinks will improve the state and convince more than 50 percent of the people that he’s right.”

What he didn’t say was that anyone who didn’t get on board was an “extremist” who should be publicly vilified in the name of ideological legislative purity. Very rarely does someone get another person to agree with them by insulting them. Also, this isn’t a one-way street. Many on the opposite side of the issues in Keel’s column would contend the extremists are the people who agree with his viewpoints. If both sides are screaming “Extremist!” at each other, what is the benefit? How does that accomplish anything?

George Korda

A legislature is a representative body. Until the 1990s, Tennessee was dominated by Democrats. But that’s changed dramatically. Tennessee is an overwhelmingly red state. Tennesseans are voting this way for a reason. And members of the legislature are responding to their constituents’ wishes. If not, they’ll vote for change.

Insulting people is easy. And it’s happening every minute, every day. But not everyone who disagrees with you or who doesn’t believe the same things you believe is an extremist.

George Korda is a political analyst for WATE-TV, hosts “State Your Case” from noon to 2 p.m. Sundays on WOKI-FM Newstalk 98.7 and is president of Korda Communications, a public relations and communications consulting firm.