In November, Democrats took back control of the governor’s mansions in Michigan and Wisconsin. The people spoke clearly ― but the GOP, as has become increasingly and disturbingly common, decided to ignore their voices. Republicans in both legislatures, with the help of the outgoing governors, are passing legislation to strip Democratic officeholders of power, so that Republicans retain control of key policies in those states.
The refusal to see Democratic victories as legitimate, and the effort to hold on to power no matter how people vote, has chilling implications for the future of democracy in the United States, and for the 2020 presidential election.
In the U.S., states are sometimes referred to as laboratories of democracy. New Jersey gave some women the vote as early as 1776, 144 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment, and Massachusetts adopted marriage equality in 2003, 12 years before the Supreme Court made it legal in every state.
But historically, states have blazed a trail in restricting rights as well as expanding them. They have been laboratories of authoritarianism, innovating to disenfranchise felons, restrict abortion access and deny certain people freedom and equality.
Historically, states have blazed a trail in restricting rights as well as expanding them.
Perhaps the bleakest example is the system of violence, literacy tests, property qualifications and other voter suppression methods that effectively disenfranchised black people in the Jim Crow South following Reconstruction. This regional system of totalitarian apartheid became national policy when Southerner Woodrow Wilson, insulated from accountability to large swathes of black voters, resegregated the federal government in 1914.
State experiments with authoritarianism have even had global consequences. Jim Crow strongly influenced Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws and served as a touchstone for South Africa’s apartheid regime. Recent Republican gerrymandering and vote-rigging efforts are mirrored in Hungary, where the ruling party’s moves toward authoritarianism bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those of Republicans in places like Wisconsin.
Over the last decade, Republicans at the state level have returned to the American tradition of anti-democratic experimentation in their insistence on gerrymandering.
After the 2010 elections, the GOP used new computer techniques to draw breathtakingly precise gerrymandered districts, devising boundaries to pack Democratic votes into a small number of districts and ensure Republican control of the majority of seats. As a result, in this year’s midterms, Wisconsin Democrats won 190,000 more votes than Republicans statewide, yet Republicans won almost two-thirds of state legislative seats. Even in a wave election year, the majority of Wisconsin voters were structurally blocked from voting out a party they wanted to reject. When you don’t have a choice of representation, you don’t have democracy.
Even in a wave election year, the majority of Wisconsin voters were structurally blocked from voting out a party they wanted to reject.
Meanwhile, gerrymandering has been complemented by voter-suppression methods reminiscent of Jim Crow regimes. North Carolina developed laws that required photo ID for voting, ended same-day registration and cut early voting. These laws were designed with Black citizens ― who have more trouble obtaining IDs and are more likely to vote early ― in mind. An appeals court struck down the wide-reaching voter ID law, finding that it “target[ed] African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” but other states like Texas have crafted similar laws that have been accepted by the courts. The effort to disenfranchise poor people and people of color is in line with America’s worst traditions of white supremacy, in which the electoral system is used to establish authoritarian rule over marginalized people.
Republican efforts to overthrow election results in lame duck sessions are yet another way the party is trying to undermine democracy. This tactic was seen in North Carolina in 2016, when a Republican governor called a special legislative session to gut the incoming Democratic governor’s authority. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators have passed measures that would limit early voting to two weeks before the election, a measure courts have already ruled unconstitutional. They also passed measures restricting the incoming Democratic governor’s control over state agencies, and preventing the incoming Democratic attorney general from withdrawing Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Michigan’s lame duck Republican legislators are trying to pass legislation that would prevent the new Democratic secretary of state from regulating campaign finance.
Republican efforts to overthrow election results in lame duck sessions are yet another way the party is trying to undermine democracy.
In many cases, these moves are designed to prevent incoming Democratic officials from implementing specific campaign promises. Republicans are attempting to block the very policies that voters elected Democrats to enact. It is a direct attempt to circumvent elections and impose the will of a minority on the state’s majority.
The GOP’s embrace of gerrymandering, voter ID laws and legislative nullification at the state level is bad for the people who live in those states, who are being disenfranchised and denied a voice in their own governance. But authoritarian experiments are also dangerous for the rest of the nation, because they exhibit a broad contempt for democracy. In the country of Jim Crow and slavery, that contempt is not new. But its historical resonance makes it all the more frightening.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly called national election results into question. Despite a complete lack of evidence, he lied about the results of the 2016 election, insisting there was massive voter fraud perpetrated by undocumented immigrants voting for Hillary Clinton. In the aftermath of this year’s midterms, supposedly sober and serious Republicans like outgoing House Speaker (Wis.) Paul Ryan have made irresponsible, baseless attacks on California’s vote-counting methods ― which are slow, but in no evident way fraudulent ― as mounting vote totals favored Democrats. Given these rhetorical attacks on election legitimacy, and the legislative willingness to nullify election results, how would Republicans react to a 2020 Democratic presidential victory?
Authoritarian experiments in individual states are also dangerous for the rest of the nation, because they exhibit a broad contempt for democracy.
Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in 2018, and that provides some level of insulation against a Republican legislative power grab. Republicans in Congress won’t be able to strip powers from an incoming Democratic president as Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan have tried to strip power from incoming executives.
But democratic transfers of power depend on all parties being committed to democracy. The GOP, increasingly, is not so committed. U.S. national institutions are quite resilient, which is why California House Democrats are going to take their seats, despite Paul Ryan’s efforts. But a party determined to view an incoming administration as illegitimate could create serious problems. Trump, with Republican backing, could feasibly take steps to damage executive agencies, or even stir up popular unrest. And what happens after 2020? At some point, a Republican Congress is going to be confronted with an incoming Democratic president. With the examples of North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin before them, what will Congress do in that case?
The GOP’s coalition, centered on white voters in rural areas and the South, is increasingly a minority in the United States, which is why Republicans have won the popular presidential vote only once since 1992. A political party that is committed to democracy would respond to that demographic reality by trying to appeal to more and different voters. Instead, the GOP has decided that its best path to power is to rig the system so it does not have to be accountable to the electorate.
Republicans in states throughout the country are using their considerable ingenuity and resources to experiment with new and better methods of tyranny. What’s being developed in Wisconsin and Michigan is a blueprint designed to make us all less free.
Noah Berlatsky is the author, most recently, of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.