Memphis Against the State: When the GOP Loves Big Government

There is common support, especially from right-leaning individuals, for the Tenth Amendment. Many desire small, decentralized governments in the form of states, and partly because state governments can, at times, push back against the overreach of the ever-growing Federal government. This tradition goes all the way back the anti-federalist movement, which developed during the Constitution debates; in modern times it’s typically Republican politicians that champion states rights. But if one truly supports the philosophy of small government and individual liberty, then it must go deeper than the state level.

Just as the country comprises unique states, each state comprises unique regions that differ in demographics, economic strength, and culture. The citizens of one region may want a certain policy that a those in a different region do not. If we truly value freedom and diversity, then cities should be able to make their own policies without interference from the state. But the Tennessee GOP prefers to control cities via top-down governance from the state capital rather than let cities develop their own governance, bottom-up. Here are a few of the recent battles between Memphis and Tennessee government.

Marijuana Decriminalization

In October of 2016, the Memphis city council passed an ordinance to drastically reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Among its many reasons was to reduce the cost of prosecutions for both the city and the state. But just five months later the state of Tennessee passed a bill that nullified Memphis’ ordinance and keep marijuana possession illegal.

“Whether or not the Tennessee legislature agreed with our local policy choice, the party, who claims to support small government, should have agreed to support Memphis and Nashville's choice to legislate within their own borders,” said John Marek, a defense attorney who also helped lobby for the initial ordinance in Memphis. “Some of the 'small government' conservatives who voted to kill local control over decriminalization were not even against decriminalization. For them, it was all about power. They wanted to prove that only they could make such decisions.”


In 2008 Memphis had a referendum to approve IRV (Instant Runoff Voting), which passed with 71% in favor. IRV is a voting procedure in which a voter ranks one to three preferences for each office. It then calculates a winner without the need of holding a separate—and costly—runoff election. In the midst of recent discussions on implementing this method, the state legislature brought back a bill to ban cities from using IRV. In the end, the state’s bill did not pass, but it took a fight.

“The state election officials have been against IRV all along and have done all they can to stop it,” said former Shelby County Commissioner, Steve Mulroy. “This spring some state legislators even tried to outlaw it, despite the fact that we're expecting two local referenda on the issue. Thanks to State Sen. Mark Norris for putting a stop to it.”

Statue Removal

Perhaps the most controversial fight has been about the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founding member of the KKK. The statue stood for decades in a downtown Memphis park until recently. Many residents no longer wanted to glorify the memory of Forrest, so the citizens pushed the city council to vote on removing the statue. The motion passed, but the removal of the statue was stopped by the Tennessee Historical Commission.

The Memphis city council then executed Plan B. On December 20, 2017 the park in which the statue stood was sold to a non-profit organization created for the purpose of removing the statue. This bypassed the state law as the statue now belonged to a private entity, and that night it was taken down. The state legislature, furious that Memphis had found a loophole out of the state's control, has since retaliated by withholding funds promised to the city.


The tension between Memphis and the state capital has been escalating, and we seem to have hit a new breaking point. On April 24 Tennessee State Representative, Antonio Parkinson, suggested that Memphis secede from the state. While most city leaders think it ridiculous or impossible, city council chairman Berlin Boyd has taken the idea seriously, and proposed way for the city to raise revenue should it stop receiving state funding.

Whether the city proceeds with an attempt to secede will depend on the residents and local government. But those who believe in a small, decentralized government should agree that localizing power is a good thing. A community should have the right to to make its own policies (a principle called subsidiarity). Every step towards individual liberty, personal responsibility, and self-governing is a step in the right direction.

ArticleJaron Weidner