• Ryan O'Connell

Republicans: Nothing to Fear But Democracy Itself

December 15, 2018

“We have nothing to fear but democracy itself. “

At least, that seems to be the credo for Republican leaders in Wisconsin, who just rushed through a sweeping set of bills designed to limit the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general.

This also seems to be the mantra of Republican leaders in Michigan, who are taking similar steps to restrict the authority of the new Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state. In both Wisconsin and Michigan, the state legislative leaders are following the playbook developed by Republicans in North Carolina. When the Republicans lost that governorship in 2016, they sharply curtailed the Democratic winner’s powers.

The hallmark of a democracy is the peaceful, orderly transfer of power--not offices and trappings, but power. However, Republican leaders in these three states seem to have forgotten, or abandoned, that fundamental principle. Their attitude seems to be: heads, I win; tails, you lose, as they use legislative maneuvers essentially to maintain one-party rule.

These tactics should worry all Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, especially because they are part of a trend of anti-democratic behavior by numerous Republican leaders. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, have wondered: why don’t more moderate (decent) Republicans stand up to Trump? There are many reasons, no doubt, but unfortunately many Republican politicians seem to share El Presidente’s contempt for democratic norms.

Thumbing Your Nose at Voters

The Republican state leaders in Wisconsin and Michigan claim that they are merely trying to maintain a balance of power between the legislature and the executive branches of their states, but that is obviously nonsense. They were fine with the status quo while a fellow Republican lived in the governor’s mansion. Furthermore, the abruptly-enacted laws in Wisconsin are very precise. They are clearly designed to prevent the Democrats from implementing specific campaign promises that had appealed to voters.

As Robin Vos, speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, said “We are going to stand like bedrock to guarantee that Wisconsin does not go back”. In other words, we’ll ignore the election results. Vos, worried that voters would vote Governor Scott Walker out of office, began to prepare the legislative package months before the election.

In Wisconsin, voters elected Tony Evers partly because of his commitment to expand Medicare and withdraw from a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act (as well as possible fatigue with Scott Walker’s hyper-partisan approach). However, the new laws will hobble the ability of the incoming governor and his attorney general to do that, by giving the legislature unusual powers to intervene or challenge such initiatives. As David Axelrod, a former advisor to President Obama said, this is “essentially thumbing your nose at voters”.

Restricting Voting Rights

Even more ominously, the new Wisconsin laws and the possible Michigan provisions continue a pattern of Republicans trying to limit voting rights. The Wisconsin provisions will restrict early voting, which tends to favor Democrats. The Michigan proposals would try to water down ballot measures, approved by voters, that would expand voting access and set up an independent commission for redrawing voting districts.

These maneuvers to hold onto power do show contempt for voters, and they frustrate the popular will. That is dangerous for a democracy. The public’s right to select new leaders based on their policies is crucial. If the entrenched party can ignore the voters, ordinary citizens may lose faith in the democratic process and stop participating. That’s not healthy for a country where turnout is already very low and many Americans consider the system rigged.

Protecting Scott Walker's Legacy From The Voters

The Republican shenanigans may also encourage bad behavior by unscrupulous Democrats on the theory that “everyone’s doing this”. So far, most Democratic state legislatures have not engaged in the precise gerrymandering that we’ve seen in several Republican states. In fact, California, a Democratic bastion, set a fine example for governance, appointing a non-partisan commission to draw up voting districts.

However, Democratic legislative leaders are now trying to ram through a gerrymandering-type scheme in New Jersey. To his credit, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is opposing this maneuver. Let’s hope the rot doesn’t spread to other blue states controlled by Democrats and that most Democrats continue to take the high road.

Bad Role Models in D.C.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leaders are not providing good role models for their counterparts on the state level. They also seem to regard Democrats as an illegitimate political party. They have apparently forgotten their own maxim that “elections have consequences” and that they should negotiate with Democrats to pass laws that meet voters’ demands for action.

In 2009, when the U.S. economy was teetering on the edge of a second Great Depression, Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Boehner, both minority leaders at the time, refused to co-operate with President Obama and the Democratic majority in the House and Senate on passing desperately needed stimulus measures. Their goal was to destroy Obama’s presidency by letting the U.S. economy crash, rather than working with the party that had just won the presidential and House elections.

The Republicans have also continued to challenge the Affordable Care Act (ACA) both in Congress and the courts, even though it was duly enacted into law. Republicans also ignored the fact that both Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned explicitly on enacting universal health care coverage for Americans, i.e., Obamacare. (The public soured on the ACA for a while, partly because of a messy rollout, but it’s quite popular again.)

Sen. McConnell further demonstrated his contempt for democratic norms and the Constitution—the separation of powers between the three branches--when he refused to hold any hearings on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The Constitution gives presidents the right to nominate candidates and the Senate the power to “advise and consent”, not to block the process. (Some Democrats seemed to forget this during the Kavanagh hearings, when they tried to disrupt the Senate proceedings.)

Of course, many Republican leaders believe in the core values that have preserved our democratic traditions. But when Republican party leaders in three states try to override election results, we can’t dismiss them as isolated cases. That should trouble other Republicans, who should condemn those practices loudly and publicly.

We’re waiting to hear from them.

The Wall Street Democrat

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