Democracies empower the will of majorities. In the US, Republican lawmakers on both the state and national level have rejected that basic principle.
In a lame-duck session in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Republican legislators in the state of Wisconsin passed a sweeping bill designed to radically check the powers of the incoming governor. The result of this 11th-hour tactic is an attack on progressive causes, the integrity of the electoral process, and democratic accountability.
Last month, Democrat Tony Evers won the state gubernatorial race, unseating Republican incumbent Scott Walker. Among other things, Evers, who made affordable healthcare a key issue in the race, promised to withdraw Wisconsin from yet another tiresome suit against provisions of Obamacare. But the Republican bill would strip him of the power to do so.
Evers also made gun control a central issue of the campaign, promising to ban guns from the Wisconsin Capitol. No, the legislators now say, you can’t do that.
Evers promised to clean up Wisconsin’s “Economic Development Corporation”. Created by Governor Walker, the EDC is the kind of scandal-ridden, crony-stacked organization that the great Republican senator from Wisconsin Robert La Follette once labored tirelessly to expose and reform. But now legislators have acted to undermine the governor’s power to regulate the wasteful and arguably corrupt corporation.
However disgraceful, the power grab by Wisconsin’s Republican legislators is hardly idiosyncratic. Hard on the heels of Democrat Roy Cooper’s capturing the governorship of North Carolina in 2016, Republican legislators in that state voted to aggressively limit the governor’s power. Last month, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer captured the governor’s seat in Michigan, trouncing her Republican opponent by 10 percentage points. Lame-duck Republican legislators are now scheming to strip the state’s highest executive of essential powers. On the national level, Senate Republicans stunningly refused to so much as grant Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the supreme court, a hearing.
Pundits have described these actions as Republicans playing “hardball”, though the description obscures a noxious reality: Republicans aren’t playing ball at all – they are rejecting the basic rules of the game. The notion that elections count only when our side wins is nothing short of a repudiation of democracy. Republicans, on both the national and state level, are essentially staging minor coups.
If Republicans no longer respect the rules of the democratic process, then they must be forced to pay a political price for their arrogance. And yet Republicans have been largely insulated from paying this price thanks to the success of an even more audacious campaign to nullify the peoples’ will.
In November, Democrats in Wisconsin won 54% of the statewide vote, and yet they captured just 36 out of 99 seats in the Wisconsin state assembly. This was thanks to the Republicans’ success in partisan gerrymandering. The Wisconsin legislative map was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in 2016, but remains in place thanks to a technical ruling by the US supreme court earlier this year.
Hyper-partisan gerrymandering is perhaps the most radically anti-democratic fixture of our present political reality. We should all, then, be encouraged by one of most consequential, but largely overlooked, results of last month’s midterms.
Voters in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah passed ballot initiatives emphatically rejecting such gerrymandering. They endorsed the creation of non-partisan redistricting commissions or otherwise voted to limit the power of a controlling party to unilaterally draw electoral maps.
We can only hope that these efforts will spread and succeed, spelling the end of radical Republican efforts to ignore the will of the majority.