The Wisconsin power grab is part of a bigger Republican attack on democracy

The Wisconsin power grab is part of a bigger Republican attack on democracy
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.



The GOP’s turn against democracy may be a greater threat to the American experiment than President Trump.

The Wisconsin Republican Party is nullifying the results of the 2018 election.


On Wednesday morning, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill that would seize key powers from incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who defeated incumbent Gov. Scott Walker in November. Walker is expected to sign it in the coming days.


The bill blocks Evers’s ability to change state welfare policy and withdraw from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — two things he campaigned on. It limits the state’s early voting period, a move that would make it harder for Democrats to win future elections. And this is all happening during the lame-duck session before Evers takes power, rushed through quickly in an explicit effort to weaken Democrats and prevent the new governor from doing what he was elected to do. In essence, Wisconsin Republicans are telling the state’s voters that their preferences will be ignored.


This would be troubling enough if it were a one-off. But it’s not.


Michigan Republicans are currently weighing similar plans, and both are following in the footsteps of North Carolina Republicans, which passed a power-stripping bill after a Democratic victory in the 2016 governor’s race. State Republicans in three of the country’s most vital swing states are displaying open contempt for the most basic principle of democracy: that when you lose an election, you have to hand over power to your opponents. The national party hasn’t condemned these power grabs, giving the state legislatures tacit permission to rewrite the rules.


These power grabs highlight one of the most disturbing facts about American politics today: The Republican Party has become institutionally indifferent to the health of democracy. It prioritizes power over principle to such an extreme degree that it undermines the most basic functioning of democracy.


In the long run, the GOP’s turn against democracy could well be a greater threat to the American experiment than anything President Donald Trump has done.


Why the state power grabs are so scary


The specifics of the power-stripping efforts vary from state to state — my colleague Tara Golshan has a great explanation of the details in each case — but share a fundamentally similar structure. Each one curtails the governor’s ability to make changes to Republican-backed policies like welfare work requirements, and political rules like campaign finance regulation. Republican-controlled legislatures are given enhanced powers to block governors’ moves through measures such as handing them control over state bureaucracies. And these bills all happen during lame-duck sessions, specifically subverting the results of elections that just happened.


Republican legislators sometimes bill the laws as high-minded protections of the separation of powers, but no one is fooled. The goal is to prevent Democrats from overturning Republican policy initiatives and electoral rules that help Republicans win statewide elections.


Wisconsin Speaker of the House Robin Vos was quite clear on this point during the debate over the bills. At one point, he warned Republicans that if they don’t pass the power grab, they “are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.” That “very liberal governor” had of course just been voted in by the people of Wisconsin, presumably to enact the policies he had campaigned on.


To understand why this is especially troubling, we need to take a step back and think about the purpose of a democratic political system.



Two attendees at the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Two attendees at the 2012 RNC in Tampa, Florida.


Democracy is premised on the idea that political power is only legitimate when exercised with the consent of the governed. But in reality, people disagree about fundamental political and moral issues; no elected government will ever have 100 percent support of the population, or anything close to it. The purpose of a democratic political system is to bridge that gap: to create a system for resolving these disagreements that everyone thinks is fair. That way, everyone will accept the outcome of the election as basically legitimate even when their side loses.


The post-election power grabs amount to Republicans declaring that they no longer accept that fundamental bargain. They do not believe it’s legitimate when they lose, or that they are obligated to hand over power to Democrats because that’s what’s required in a fair system. Political power, to the state legislators in question, matters more than the core bargain of democracy.


Now, a certain level of working the refs is inevitable in a democratic system. American politicians, as Georgetown’s Matt Glassman notes, have always tinkered with the system’s rules to give themselves and their favored policies a leg up. For instance, Democrats in Massachusetts back in 2004 tried to amend the rules for Senate vacancies to make sure that then-Gov. Mitt Romney couldn’t appoint a Republican to the Senate if then-Sen. John Kerry won his bid for the presidency.


But literally stripping powers from officials of the opposing party after they win elections goes well beyond this kind of tinkering. It’s nothing less than a rejection of the idea that the people should get to decide who rules them, a point that many political scientists were quick to highlight after the Wisconsin bill passed.


“By undermining the results of the midterms, the GOP makes a mockery of the notion that elections matter,” Jaime Dominguez, a political scientist at Northwestern University, told me via email. The Wisconsin law is “a breathtaking assault on the most basic democratic norm: the willingness of the loser of an election to let the winner rule,” Yascha Mounk, a fellow at Harvard scholar who studies democratic breakdown, tweeted.


There’s also a broader context. Republicans have, for years now, engaged in a systematic and nationally coordinated effort to rewrite the rules of the political game in their favor. What’s happening in Wisconsin and Michigan is only the latest manifestation of a broader anti-democratic trend, which in the past decade or so has become part of the party’s identity.


The spread of extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter ID laws, tools used by Republicans to marginalize minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies, are the most obvious examples.


The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote draft legislation that Republican state legislatures around the country quickly and easily adapted into their own voter ID laws. Another effort, Project REDMAP, an initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee, was a national coordinating committee helping Republicans at the state level put together extreme partisan gerrymanders in the wake of their sweeping 2010 victories.


In both cases, Republican or GOP-aligned organizations at the national level spearheaded a campaign to systematically undermine the fairness of the electoral system. It’s the flip side of the Wisconsin-Michigan-North Carolina laws: Instead of trying to nullify Democratic victories after they happen, they’re trying to change the system so Democrats can’t win in the first place. At times, they’re even honest about it.


“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map in a way to help foster what I think is better for the country,” North Carolina state Rep. David Lewis, chair of the legislature’s redistricting effort, once said in defense of his gerrymander.


And there is simply no parallel on the other side. While state Democrats have certainly gerrymandered — Maryland being a particularly egregious case — it’s not nearly as nationally systematic as it has been on the Republican side. And Democrats certainly have not engaged in large-scale efforts to suppress Republican voters or strip powers from Republican officials after they win office. Republican officials appear to feel constrained by the basic, principled norms of democracy in a way that Democrats simply don’t.


“There’s really an assault on electoral fairness, I would say, in Republican-governed states,” Daniel Ziblatt, a Harvard professor and author of How Democracies Die, tells me. “It’s really only in Republican-governed states where this has taken place.”


Republican indifference to democracy is a threat to the system


For most of American history, elections have not been free or fair. Vast swaths of the country were not permitted to vote based solely on their race or gender. Even after voting rights were inscribed in the Constitution, Jim Crow laws and campaigns of racist terrorism prevented African Americans from exercising the right to vote. It’s only recently, really since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that the United States even approximated a fully egalitarian democracy.


And that’s what makes these Republican moves so alarming. It’s not that Republicans are anti-democratic, in the sense of wanting to tear down American democracy and replace it with an authoritarian alternative. It’s that they’re democracy-indifferent, unconcerned with the fact that their pursuit of power echoes some of the undemocratic practices we’ve seen in both American history and failing democracies abroad.


In Hungary, a once-vibrant democracy I visited recently, the ruling Fidesz party has spent the past eight years building an electoral system that quietly eliminated democratic competition without having to nakedly rig the vote counts.


Parliamentary districts were redrawn and gerrymandered to give Fidesz a leg up. The new constitution packed the country’s courts, creating new seats that Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orbán filled with loyalists. Civil servants were fired en masse, and Fidesz allies were installed in vital roles, like election supervision. Hungary’s state broadcaster was brought under the control of a new media board, and its editorial outlook began to mirror Fidesz’s positions.



Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at a 2018 campaign rally.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at a 2018 campaign rally.


No single one of these moves destroyed democracy in Hungary. Cumulatively, though, they created a system in which it was very difficult for the opposition to compete on a fair playing field. Minor changes to the political and electoral system, each one potentially defensible on its own terms, amounted to an attempt to undermine the functioning of the democratic system.


The parallels with what Republicans are doing in the states are obvious. And while the 2018 election has proven that America is not even close to this far gone — Democrats won about 40 seats in the House — there’s a risk that this Republican anti-democratic behavior will escalate if it proves successful. (In fact, one could argue, it already has: The Wisconsin and Michigan bills are building on North Carolina’s example.)


There has not been a hint of hand-wringing from President Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (who happens to be from Wisconsin). They do not object because they do not object: The past few years have shown that the national Republican leadership is perfectly fine with power grabs, and at times willing to back them.


“Once partisan goals trump democratic commitments, everything is on the table,” writes Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “Scholars of democratic erosion know how dangerous this situation can be,”


It’s not clear what the bottom is — when more responsible Republicans will start to see that they’re walking down the same road as authoritarian political parties like Fidesz. Is the Republican Party too far gone, too willing to countenance anti-democratic behavior, to be able to reform itself?


If that’s the case, then American democracy is in serious trouble.