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“All They Know Is Extremism”: Ohio Democrat David Pepper on How Statehouses Are Destroying Democracy

A former state party chairman discusses his new book, “Laboratories of Autocracy”—and whether Democrats can ever win in Ohio again.

Illustration by The New Republic

You may not know the name David Pepper, but you should know and be interested in what he’s up to. Pepper, who chaired the Ohio Democratic Party from 2015 to 2020, is out with a book called Laboratories of Autocracy. It’s a scathing look at how state governments, once lauded as centers of experimentation, have become controlled lock, stock, and barrel in so many states by wealthy right-wing interests—to such an extent that they are no longer merely just conservative but are helping to destroy our democracy.

How? Because as we focus on Donald Trump and the January 6 insurrection, democracy is equally under threat in the statehouses. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are only the two most visible examples. But Pepper makes a broader argument: that since the GOP started spending big money to flip and control statehouses, the state governments themselves have become undemocratic. Gerrymandering is the big culprit here. Republican legislators, he argues, “are sitting in power mostly having never won a real election.” They cut themselves districts that are wildly skewed in their direction. They never have to think about swing voters. They worry only about primaries from their right. So they’ve created these Truman Show legislatures that have no serious civic interaction with the public at large. It’s a smart critique—and it comes with proposed solutions.

Then, Pepper talks with me about Ohio and the Democrats’ future prospects there. He thinks Tim Ryan has a shot at beating likely GOP nominee Josh Mandel in the race for next year’s open Senate seat (Mandel “can’t hide how off-the-wall he is”). More broadly, one main suggestion: Go to small towns. Get outside the big cities. Walk the main streets. Losing less badly in small towns is the key to winning statewide. There’s a lot to chew on here.