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Destroying a State in Order to Save it From Voters

What is it about democracy that lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan failed to learn?

December 5, 2018

“Democracy Dies in Darkness,” according to the Washington Post's Trump-era slogan. But in Wisconsin, democracy doesn’t fare very well with the break of dawn, either. 

Wednesday morning, as the sun was struggling to come up over Madison, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state senate voted with just one GOP dissenter to eviscerate the powers of the incoming Democratic governor, Tony Evers. The state assembly (which thanks to gerrymandering has a lopsided Republican majority despite the Democrats winning 190,000 more votes statewide in 2018) quickly followed suit in approving the 56-page sore-loser bill.

The far-reaching provisions to enhance the powers of the Republican legislature include taking away from the governor the right to unilaterally ban guns from the state Capitol. The legislation — which outgoing Gov. Scott Walker has already signaled he’ll sign — also would prevent Evers from removing Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit challenging Obamacare. 

Republicans in Michigan are also working overtime to thwart the will of the voters. There, a session of the GOP-controlled legislature is trying to limit the powers of incoming Democrats like governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer over elections and campaign finance. And the legislature — for the first time in modern history — has also voted to water down the liberal results of 2018 statewide referenda on the minimum wage and paid sick leave. These aggressive actions are based on a legal opinion from none other than Bill Schuette, the outgoing GOP state attorney general who lost the governor’s race to Whitmer. 

But it was Robin Vos, the GOP speaker of Wisconsin’s lower house, who best expressed the principles powering the Republican assault on the verdict of voters in 2018. "I respect the fact that Tony Evers is the governor and he’s going to be starting on January 7,” Vos said at a late-night news conference. “But he’s not the governor today and that’s why we’re going to make sure the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”

Yeah, sure. 

A quick scan of the backgrounds of the Republican state senators who voted “aye” on Wednesday morning reveals that almost all are college graduates, some of whom boast that they majored in political science or history. So this isn’t a case of legislators who can claim that they left school before getting to high-school civics classes. 

What is it about democracy that these legislators failed to learn in Wisconsin, a state once famous for its bipartisan progressive tradition? Is the right to strap on a pistol before you head to the floor of the state senate so fundamental that it requires this extraordinary lame-duck legislation to protect it? Do these Republicans understand that the fate of the federal litigation challenging the Affordable Care Act does not rise or fall on whether the word “Wisconsin” appears in the court documents? 

For most of my four decades covering politics, I clung to the high-minded theory that there was not some vast moral chasm separating Republican and Democratic political operatives. Each side, I believed, did what it had to do tactically, roughly following the theories of the old-time Tammany Hall political boss who said, “I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.” 

But now I have serious doubts. It is bad enough that restricting voting has become a staple of GOP electoral strategy. Not surprisingly, the Wisconsin lame-duck legislation also includes a provision to limit early voting in the state to two weeks — even though a similar law passed in 2013 was struck down by a court. 

Even more ominous for the future of democracy, the Republicans have become the party of “elections don’t really count.” 

That cynical tactic was patented in North Carolina in 2016 after Democrat Roy Cooper defeated GOP incumbent Pat McCrory for governor. The Republican-dominated legislature used a lame-duck special session to eliminate more than two-thirds of the incoming governor’s potential appointments. Many of these GOP desperation maneuvers have been overturned by litigation, including a Wednesday decision by a state court declaring that Cooper as governor retains the right to appoint the leadership of a board that decides workers’ compensation cases. 

On a funereal Wednesday when the contrast between the 41st and 45th presidents has been nakedly apparent, it is fashionable to argue that the Republican Party took a bizarre turn toward a cult of personality with Donald Trump’s election. But what is happening in Wisconsin illustrates that the rot in the Republican’s conception of American democracy extends far beyond Trump.

At this time in 2014, Scott Walker, after facing down the state public service unions and surviving a recall election, was a GOP hero. In fact, it was an article of faith among TV pundits that the Republicans in 2016 would nominate one of three men: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Scott Walker.

So Walker, despite his defeat last month, represents 21st-century GOP orthodoxy. But that has not prevented Walker from promising to sign the lame-duck legislation that clips the wings from Evers as governor. Nor has Walker been daunted by hypocrisy, despite pressing his Democratic predecessor Jim Doyle not to make any executive appointments during a 2010 lame-duck session. 

The Onion captured the defiant attitude of Republicans to losing elections with a mock headline: “GOP-Controlled Wisconsin Legislature Votes To Dissolve State Rather Than Let Democrats Have It.” In a dismal decade for democracy, destroying a state in order to save it has become one party’s approach to good government. 

(Image: Scott Olson/Getty)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.