The real reason autocrats expel their legislative opponents

Yesterday, Tennessee legislators took the unprecedented step of stripping two of their colleagues, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, of their seats and expelling them from the chamber. The purported offense: joining gun control protests and temporarily disrupting legislative business. 

A legislative supermajority expelling and silencing opposition is a new and alarming development for the United States. But on a global scale, this is a common and regularly used tactic across autocratizing countries. 

In Russia, the expulsion of vocal opposition leader Gennady Gudkov from the Duma in 2012 marked a key moment in the consolidation of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. In Hong Kong in 2020, the Chinese government expelled four pro-democracy legislators as part of a campaign to extinguish the territory’s remaining autonomy and democracy. And just two weeks ago, allies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expelled his most visible longtime opponent, Rahul Gandhi, from Parliament, effectively removing him from politics. 

Across all these cases, the goal is rarely — if ever — to simply manipulate the vote count or shift the balance of power within a legislative chamber. After all, if an autocrat or autocratic faction already has the power to expel their opponents, as in the Tennessee legislature, their power is likely functionally absolute. 

Instead, the tactic has three more oblique, but equally malicious, goals: 

First, silencing dissent or targeting specific actors. Even facing a supermajority, a legislative minority and its leaders can still use their platforms to marshal public opinion. In Tennessee, the legislators’ disruption — a literal megaphone on the chamber floor — punctured the supermajority’s control. Moreover, the decision to expel only the two Black members, and not the white member for the same offense (dubiously, the reasoning seems to be that she was not the one using the megaphone), seems indicative of a desire to silence and retaliate against the voices of a specific minority community, not the opposition as a whole. 

Second, making a statement of power. The Gudkov expulsion in 2012 came in the middle of some of the largest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union. Autocratic consolidation requires acquiescence; the opposition must give up or lose hope. Flagrantly and visibly flexing power can be an attempt to demoralize the opposition’s supporters. The message to protestors is simple: our power is absolute, you have already lost. Give up and go home. Tragically, in the case of Russia, that consolidation and acquiescence has subsequently come to pass. 

Third, corrupting — not erasing — democratic institutions. 21st-century authoritarians, unlike their more-dictatorial forebears, prefer not to abolish the institutions of democracy outright. Instead they generally keep them and pervert them for their own benefit. So, officially, elections, legislatures, and the rule of law all stay in place — but as a potemkin facade. And rules designed as a shield against abuses of power, like provisions for expelling legislators for misdeeds, are reforged as weapons to go after enemies. As they were in Tennessee.  

This not only casts a veneer of legitimacy over blatant expressions of power, but also helps ensure that — should the tables ever be turned — these tools of accountability and integrity have already been poisoned as political or retaliatory. Perversions of accountability tools today can effectively undermine accountability in the future.

In a revealing comment, the Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton described the protest and disruption as “an insurrection.”

The Constitution specifically bars from federal office anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States. While “insurrectionist” clearly does not apply to Reps. Jones or Pearson, that hardly means the term is meaningless or without accurate potential application in American politics today.

Whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, democracy generally dies not by armed takeovers but rather through the intentional weaponization of the tools and language of democracy, turned against democracy itself.

About the Author

Ben Raderstorf

Policy Advocate

Ben Raderstorf is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy. He helps direct policy and communications work around systemic threats to American democracy and writes If you can keep it, our weekly email briefing.

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Current United States Authoritarian Threat Index score: 2.1/5 Significant Threat

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