Political Unity Found at Weekly Rotary Club Luncheon in McMinnville
Political comity erupted Thursday at the weekly luncheon meeting of The Rotary Club of McMinnville. The occasion was a virtual presentation by Vanderbilt Political Science professor Carrier Russell, JD PhD. Widely recognized for her research and scholarly publications on partisan hostility and conflict, she recalled the history of Tennessee politics from just after the Civil War to the present.
Opposing Parties Sit Side by Side
Joining Noon Rotary president Michael Barnes at the head table were Joseph Stotts and Joseph Moore, the chairs, respectively, of the Republican Party of Warren County and the Warren County Democratic Party.
Though poles apart on many political and public policy issues, the two Josephs sat side by side, sharing a home-style meal prepared by the Ladies Guild of First Presbyterian Church while chatting on a range of common interests, all in the spirit of civility and neighborly relations.
“People should always come first before politics,’ Stotts said in comments following the Rotary luncheon.
“’When we aspire to serve others it should always involve humility, compassion and respect,” he continued. “When we ensure these three principles are involved our path to goal achievement will always find success and truth.”
Promoting Conversation and Understanding
Moore, the Democrat leader, reciprocated the friendly feelings.
“Partisanship certainly plays a part in our two-party system and for good reason,” he remarked. “However, the ability to have a conversation with your political counterpart is just as important.
“President Stotts and I have enjoyed the ability to discuss issues and share non-partisan events in Warren County, such as the non-partisan National Voter Registration Day, since we’ve held our respective positions. I look forward to a continuation of that relationship in the future.”
A History of Political Divisions in Tennessee
Tennesseans have a long history of internal battles over politics, with the conflicts sharpening in the Civil War, Dr. Russell began. Geography and agriculture shaped sentiments and loyalties on opposing sides, Northern Union versus the Southern Confederacy.
The wide plains of West Tennessee and the gentle hills of the middle section were conducive to large-scale farming, including cotton growing, where slave labor was an advantage. Conditions were different in the uneven terrain and high slopes in the eastern third. It’s little wonder that much of Tennessee wanted to protect the tradition of slavery while those further east favored abolition and emancipation.
Many Tennessee families were devastated by the divided loyalties, literally with brothers fighting brothers in the bloody war that claimed some 600,000 lives.
Tennessee’s Political Evolution
In the immediate aftermath of the war, after General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate army at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865, the Tennessee legislature was in the Reconstruction control of a Republican majority, the Rotary speaker explained.
Tennessee lawmakers, many of them formerly enslaved Blacks, promptly passed Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Tennessee became the first Southern state re-admitted to the Union.
Political winds shifted in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th. After decades of solid Democrat dominance, many Tennesseans moved in a conservative direction, eventually electing Republican super majorities in the General Assembly and voting in a succession of GOP governors.
“New Yorkers and Californians moving here are surprised there was ever a Democratic majority in Tennessee,” Russell remarked.
A Call for Civility in Politics
Some self-serving candidates and their sponsors employ the heated rhetoric of division to gain public attention and advance their own ambitions, the Vanderbilt political scientist observed. Polarization “is a tool” of campaigning, pitting “us against them,” she said. Such politics are “unhealthy for our communities.”
Concluding her address to Rotarians and their guests, Russell urged civility and mutual respect in political dialogue. Citing as an example the friendly relations between Moore and Stotts, she affirmed, “There is more that unites us than divides us as Tennesseans.”