On Tuesday, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker prepared to light the state capitol Christmas tree, protesters gathered in the Capitol rotunda to boo him. The protesters’ jeers were merited. After being soundly defeated in his bid for re-election, Walker and his allies in the state legislature have launched an all-out assault on democracy — a transparent power grab before Democrats take office.
In November, Wisconsin voters elected Democrats to all six statewide positions that were up for grabs, including electing Democrat Tony Evers to replace Walker in the governor’s mansion. In response, Republican state lawmakers abruptly called a rare “lame-duck” session last Friday afternoon and introduced a sweeping raft of legislation aimed at neutering Evers’s powers as governor, as well as those of other Democrats elected to lead the state’s executive branch. On Monday night, as Republicans rushed the bills through the Joint Committee on Finance, more than 1,000 protesters gathered outside the state capitol and the hearing room to protest the power grab.
If the U.S. political commentariat saw this happening in another country, they would call it what it is: a coup.
And Wisconsin isn’t the only state where Republicans have been ramping up efforts to negate the will of voters — it’s becoming part of the GOP’s regular playbook. In Michigan, a lame-duck push by the GOP is also seeking to neuter incoming Democratic elected officials. The same thing happened in North Carolina in 2016, when Republicans in the state legislature executed the same lame-duck power grab after voters elected Democrat Roy Cooper as governor. Taken together, the actions of Republicans in these states add up to an unprecedented seizure of power. They are holding entire state governments hostage in order to further oppress people who are struggling to meet their basic needs, while continuing to enrich the Republican donor class. If the U.S. political commentariat saw this happening in another country, they would call it what it is: a coup.
These state-level coups are just a prelude: These sorts of power grabs are sure to affect national races in 2020 — playing a role in the presidential election. Lame-duck moves by Republicans to restrict voting rights, allow dark money in elections, and protect the ill-gotten gains of their long gerrymandering efforts could give a boost to President Donald Trump’s re-election efforts in key swing states.
None of these power grabs have been as expansive as what’s happening in Wisconsin. During an all-night session on Tuesday in Madison, Republicans continued their vote-o-rama on amendments intended to curtail the powers of incoming Democratic leaders.
They did a lot of damage: protecting a work requirement for state health care; limiting the governor’s ability to renegotiate disastrous deals for public subsidies to private companies; shifting some of incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul’s core responsibilities to the legislature; and, in perhaps the most wicked vote of the night, moving to limit early voting in Wisconsin from six weeks to two weeks — a proposal that a federal judge struck down just two years ago, saying it “intentionally discriminates on the basis of race.” Republicans also voted to approve more than 80 last-minute appointments made by Walker, despite the fact that many of the candidates had no public hearing.
Wisconsin’s GOP has been able to maintain its vice-like grip on state government despite rising unpopularity with one neat trick: gerrymandering.
Wisconsin’s GOP has been able to maintain its vice-like grip on state government despite rising unpopularity with one neat trick: gerrymandering. In 2011, the GOP-controlled state legislature redrew Wisconsin’s maps in one of the most blatant examples of partisan gerrymandering in the past decade. Wisconsin is a purple battleground state, yet Democrats have not been able to hold more than 39 of the assembly’s 99 seats since Republicans redrew the maps in 2011. Democrats won 205,000 more votes than Republicans statewide this year. But thanks to gerrymandering and urban clustering of Democratic voters, Democrats were only able to flip one state assembly seat. Republicans kept control of 63 of 99 seats in the chamber, and actually gained a seat in the state senate, increasing their majority to 19-14.
Republicans aren’t even bothering to hide their central project anymore. The day after the vote, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speculated that perhaps votes from Democratic areas simply shouldn’t count. “I do not like the fact that Madison and Milwaukee chose Evers and they’re the reason that he won,” Vos told the Journal Times. “But in the process that we have, Madison and Milwaukee get the chance to vote.”
“In the process that we have” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. The subtext of Vos’s message is that it’s regrettable that “in the process that we have,” every voter — including, say, in Milwaukee County, where more than two thirds of the state’s black population lives — get an equal say in the outcome of an election.
GOP leaders in Wisconsin have grown more and more brazen in their suggestion that they don’t have to respect the will of the state’s voters. In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said, “Law written by a legislature and passed by a governor” — in other words, the Republican agenda — “should not be erased based on the political maneuvering of an incoming administration.” To which you might say, yes, that is how representative democracies are supposed to function. If you win an election fairly, you are rewarded by working to bring your party’s agenda to fruition. To do so is not some underhanded “political maneuvering.” If one party weren’t able to enact its own agenda after taking power, what would be the point in holding elections at all?
Across the country — in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina — Republicans’ message is consistent: If elections don’t go the way they want, then they have no intention of respecting the results. In their minds, voters who don’t support Republican candidates are illegitimate, for the simple fact that they don’t support Republicans. This circular thinking isn’t an aberration within the GOP — it’s the foundation for all of their machinations.
And more naked power grabs like this are sure to come in the next two years, as Republicans continue to feel their popular support slip out from under them. Trump currently holds a 40 percent approval rating, while the Republican-controlled Congress has a dismal 19.9 percent approval rating. Rather than deciding to change their own policies to help win over more voters — say, by not imprisoning migrant children in Hoovervilles in the Texas desert — Republicans see their only option as ripping up the social contract to cling to whatever power they can.
More naked power grabs like this are sure to come in the next two years, as Republicans continue to feel their popular support slip out from under them.
We are living in an era of disastrous minority rule. During my lifetime, a Republican presidential candidate has only won the popular vote once, yet a Republican has occupied the White House for 10 of the past 25 years. Republicans’ anti-democracy playbook predates Walker. It predates Trump, and it even predates former President George W. Bush. The modern conservative movement – including Republicans and, in the past, Southern Democrats — was forged in its fight against the Civil Rights movement, which enshrined the right to vote for Americans, irrespective of their race. White conservatives then opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for the same reason white conservatives oppose free and fair elections today: at their core, they earnestly believe the only people who have an unalienable right to vote are people who look and vote like them.
Wisconsin’s political legacy, like that of the United States as a whole, has been fractured since its inception. The same state that produced “Fighting” Bob LaFollette, William Proxmire, Russ Feingold, and Tammy Baldwin also produced Joseph McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker. Those who want to see a return to Wisconsin’s progressive roots must remember that justice has never been guaranteed, and in fact, those in power often thrive on its precarity. What the people decide to do in response to rampant abuses of power will determine their fate.
Look at what’s happening in Wisconsin, and it becomes abundantly clear that Republican leaders don’t really believe in the separation of powers, or in a peaceful transfer of power, or in anything else one might consider bedrock principles of a functioning democracy. It’s well past time for Democrats, the political press, and anyone interested in preserving small-d democracy to take Republicans at their word and recognize that they have no interest in a system of government made legitimate by the consent of the governed.