The Commercial Appeal

Vitriol bubbles in East Tennessee


Who knew? Who possibly knew there was so much political vitriol bubbling up in East Tennessee? After all, the state’s Second Congressio­nal District is a national model of consistenc­y and complacenc­y. A change in the district’s representa­tive is as rare as a close approach to Earth by Halley’s Comet.

No Democrat has represente­d the Second District since 1855, and the House seat has been in Republican hands continuous­ly for 150 years. In fact, the seat has been held by the same family name for more than 50 years.

So with that much stability, who knew that the district – which encompasse­s Knoxville and stretches from the Kentucky state line to the border of North Carolina – is populated with extremists, kooks and radicals?

And yet, those are the labels that U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. used to describe groups of constituen­ts who had called on the Second District congressma­n to hold a town hall meeting.

The groups ostensibly wanted to discuss with Duncan the future of the Affordable Care Act, the possible abolishmen­t of the Environmen­tal Protection Agency and other concerns. They insisted there was no hidden agenda to embarrass the congressma­n.

But Duncan said their real intention was to create a ruckus and gain media attention. And he was having none of it.

“Unfortunat­ely, there is more anger in politics today than ever before,” Duncan wrote in a letter to constituen­ts last week. “And we are receiving many very hateful, very angry emails and phone calls from some on the liberal-left side of the political spectrum.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunit­ies for extremists, kooks and radicals. Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustratio­n in them.”

So unless constituen­ts can snag a one-on-one appointmen­t at Duncan’s office in Knoxville or Washington, or is able to corner him in aisle 5 of the local drug store, they’re out of luck getting him to address important issues at a mass meeting.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a microcosm of the state of our political discourse in 21st Century America. The ill will has been around for several years, but it has now gotten worse. And we have to ask ourselves, did the kookiness start with the politician­s or with the people who elected them?

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uses his man card to silence fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren, thus preventing her from reading into the Senate record a letter from the late civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, who is to blame for such a blatantly sexist and meanspirit­ed act – McConnell or his Kentucky constituen­ts?

The lengthy diatribe from Duncan is particular­ly striking in that he is generally not known as someone who resorts to name-calling, even during the most heated political battle.

Duncan is the longest-serving House member in the Tennessee delegation. He was elected in 1988 after the death of his father who was first elected to the Second District seat in 1964. Duncan also is a reliable conservati­ve Republican, but he does not always cast a reliably conservati­ve vote.

He voted against the Iraq War in 2002, but the political fallout among his loyal constituen­ts was minimal. Duncan is the only one of six House Republican­s who opposed the war remaining in Congress.

But it’s obvious that the current national political rancor has revealed Duncan’s edgier side. And like so many other elected leaders, starting at the top, the 69-year-old ranking Tennessee congressma­n is no longer averse to describing some of his constituen­ts as extremists, kooks and radicals.

In like-minded East Tennessee, who knew that deep-seated political enmity was contagious?

Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at Follow him on Twitter @otissanfor­d.

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