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The GOP’s Laboratories of Oligarchy

Republicans in multiple states are using lame-duck sessions to disempower the Democrats who won in last month's blue wave.

Darren Hauck/Getty Images

In the classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the titular characters occasionally play a game known as “Calvinball.” The rules are simple: Hobbes makes them up as he goes. In one strip, the imaginary stuffed tiger declares mid-game that Calvin has entered an “invisible sector” and must cover his eyes “because everything is invisible to you.” The six-year-old boy obeys and asks Hobbes how he gets out. “Someone bonks you with the Calvinball!” Hobbes exclaims, chucking the volleyball at Calvin. And so it goes until Calvin, in the final panel, is dizzy and disoriented. “This game,” he notes, “lends itself to certain abuses.”

American democracy is starting to feel the same way. In November’s midterm elections, voters across the country handed the Democratic Party 40 House seats, control of multiple state legislatures, and an assortment of governorships and other state offices. Now, one month later, GOP lawmakers in multiple states are using lame-duck sessions to hamstring incoming Democratic elected officials, either by reducing their official powers or transferring them to Republican-led legislatures.

Much has been written about Trumpism and the threat it poses to American democratic governance, and rightly so. But these state-level tactics aren’t new. Over the past decade, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina mastered the strategy of constitutional hardball to preserve their political muscle even as their electoral advantage shrank. The metastasis of this model today may be an even greater threat to the nation’s political health than Trump himself.

In the November elections in Michigan, after a long period of Republican rule, Democrats captured the governorship and the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general after a long period of Republican rule. Now, Republican legislators are weighing measures that would diminish the powers of the latter two positions. One proposal would give state lawmakers the legal standing to defend laws in court when the attorney general declines to do so. Another would transfer the secretary of state’s oversight over campaign-finance regulations to a new oversight board, whose members would be equally chosen by the governor and the legislature.

Wisconsin Republicans are considering even more aggressive steps after Governor Scott Walker lost to Democratic challenger Tony Evers last month. In a series of bills unveiled on Friday, GOP lawmakers aimed to seize a broad array of powers from Evers before he can take office. The Republicans want to empower state legislators to block the governor from changing regulations on healthcare and voting rights, denying Evers the ability to fulfill campaign pledges he was elected to carry out. They also want to reduce the governor’s influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a state-run corporation that played a key role in the controversial Foxconn deal championed by Walker.

Other measures are aimed at the attorney general’s office, where Democrat Josh Kaul toppled Republican incumbent Brad Schimel. One proposal would allow the state legislature to hire its own lawyers to defend the constitutionality of laws without the attorney general’s participation. Another would abolish part of the attorney general’s office that handles appeals in federal courts, limiting the state’s ability to participate in multi-state lawsuits against the Trump administration.

Still other provisions are aimed at retooling the state’s elections. The bills would slash early voting in the state from six weeks to two weeks, a move that will likely suppress turnout among communities that tend to vote Democratic. It would also separate the 2020 presidential primary election from nonpartisan state races that same year. That appears to be aimed at giving Republicans a chance to elect a conservative Supreme Court justice in that year’s race and bolstering their control over that court.

Top Republicans in Wisconsin aren’t disguising the partisan aims of their legislation, which drew protesters to the state’s capitol building on Monday. “Most of these items are things that either we never really had to kind of address because, guess what? We trusted Scott Walker and the administration to be able to manage the back-and-forth with the legislature,” Scott Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Senate’s majority leader, said in an interview with a conservative talk-radio host. “We don’t trust Tony Evers right now in a lot of these areas.”

This approach to governance was devastating enough in North Carolina. Its spread to other states is a grim sign for purple and red states. If Republicans are unwilling to be governed by another political party, one need not be a political scientist to understand how harmful that will be to democracy itself.

The Republican Party made extraordinary nationwide gains in the 2010 midterms in Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and other purple states. Their timing was particularly fortuitous: It gave the GOP control of key state legislatures and governorships immediately after the 2010 U.S. Census, which gave them the upper hand when drawing the state legislative maps and federal congressional districts that would stand for the next decade. Thanks to that advantage, Democrats had to pull off a wave election of their own in 2018 just to win a modest majority in the House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering is as old as the republic itself, and neither party’s hands are clean when it comes to drawing legislative districts for partisan advantage. What distinguished the post-2010 wave of Republican gerrymandering was its sheer aggressiveness. In Wisconsin, the GOP commands near-supermajorities in the state assembly and state senate despite drawing roughly even with Democrats in the statewide popular vote. North Carolina Democrats won nearly half of the statewide popular vote in congressional races but captured only three of the state’s House seats.

With a stranglehold on the legislature, North Carolina Republicans passed a slate of restrictive voting laws, including voter-ID measures, curbs on early voting, and new hurdles to cast absentee ballots. Though pitched as defenses against purported voter fraud, their practical impact is the suppression of votes in disadvantaged communities. A federal judge struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law as unconstitutional last year after concluding that it was designed to target black voters “with almost surgical precision.” Not all of these laws get blocked by the courts, however. Schimel, the ousted Republican attorney general in Wisconsin, partially attributed Trump’s victory there in 2016 to the state’s strict voter-ID law.

What happens if, despite Republicans’ best efforts and structural advantages, voters somehow manage to elect a Democratic candidate to statewide office? Then you simply strip as much power as you can from that office, within the state constitution’s boundaries. In 2016, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, trounced Republican Pat McCrory. State GOP lawmakers responded by passing a series of laws that reduced the number of appointments Cooper could make, including to the University of North Carolina system’s board of trustees, and also forced him to seek legislative approval for his cabinet picks. Cooper managed to claw back some powers after protracted legal battles, and voters rejected a legislature-backed initiative in November that would have stripped him of his judicial appointments as well.

Democracy, both as a system of government and as a way of life, needs more than just legislation and constitutions to function. It also requires a shared understanding of the bounds of acceptable political action. Without that shared understanding, the laboratories of democracy, as Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, become breeding grounds for oligarchical rule. “The only permanent rule in Calvinball,” Calvin exclaims in one strip, “is that you can’t play it the same way twice!” That may work with an imaginary friend, but it’s a dangerous way to run a country.