“Can we really get away with this?” It’s a question I’ve often wondered if Republicans ask themselves, but all evidence suggests that if it comes up, the answer they give is, “Sure—why the hell not?” And with good reason.
Since Donald Trump became president we’ve heard a lot about norms, the informal expectations and patterns of behavior that govern much of the political world. We’ve discussed them because Trump so often breaks them, in ways small and large. There’s no law saying the president has to release his tax returns, or can’t publicly demand that the Justice Department investigate his political opponents—it’s just how everyone accepted that things would work. But Trump, who has spent a lifetime being taught that he can do whatever he wants, determined upon entering politics that he wouldn’t pay a price for flouting norms of presidential behavior or even basic human decency.
But it didn’t start with him. Republicans have been pushing against norms for years, in ways that have consisted demonstrated an undeniable creativity. They not only do what Democrats wouldn’t dare, they come up with new ways to distort the system that nobody had ever thought of.
Which is what is happening right now in multiple states: a shocking and repugnant attack on the will of the electorate and on democracy itself, from a party that plainly believes it can get away with just about anything.
Let’s start in Wisconsin, where Republicans gerrymandered so ruthlessly after taking control of the state government in 2010 that this year, Democratic candidates won 54 percent of votes for the state house but Republicans held on to an incredible 64 percent of the seats. So power in the state will be split between a Republican-controlled legislature and newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers. That, however, is unacceptable to the GOP, so they’re moving to limit the powers of the governor in a lame-duck session:
MADISON — Republican lawmakers are seeking to limit voter turnout and want to take away key powers from the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general before GOP Gov. Scott Walker leaves office in January. […]
The legislation is wide-ranging and would limit Evers’ power in a host of ways. His agencies would have less freedom to run their programs. He would not be able to ban guns from the state Capitol without the OK of lawmakers.
The power of the incoming attorney general also would be greatly diminished.
Among other things, the plan would give the legislature the ability to stop the attorney general from withdrawing from a multistate Republican lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the Affordable Care Act. “Lawmakers are also considering separating the 2020 presidential primary election from an April spring election to reduce voter turnout in an effort to boost the election chances of a conservative Supreme Court justice.”
And it isn’t just Wisconsin. Here’s what’s happening in Michigan, with a similar situation in which Republicans’ gerrymandering enabled them to retain control of the state house and senate despite winning fewer votes, while Democrats swept the statewide elections:
LANSING — With Democrats set to take over top statewide offices next year, Michigan Republicans are considering proposals that would allow the Legislature to intervene in legal battles and shift oversight of the state’s campaign finance law to a new commission.
The lame-duck power plays would limit the power of Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Democrats have not held all three posts since 1990.
And according to Governing magazine, “In Florida, there were rumors prior to the election that Republican legislators were preparing to strip the governor of some powers if Democrat Andrew Gillum won.”
Where did they get this idea? Republicans in North Carolina—where, yes, this year the GOP won fewer votes but held on to a majority of legislative seats thanks to gerrymandering—led the way two years ago after governor Roy Cooper got elected. They held a lame-duck session after the 2016 election to strip the governor’s office of a range a powers, in a bill the outgoing Republican governor signed. Everyone assumed that the next time a Republican is elected governor, the powers would be restored.
This is a three-step maneuver: Gerrymander brutally when you have the chance; hold on to power even when you lose the vote; then hamstring the Democrat the voters elected. It’s the kind of thing that until a few years ago no one would have even contemplated.
But as I said, Republicans are nothing if not creative. You can date this era of democracy-rigging back to the 2000 Florida debacle, which taught Republicans a number of lessons, including that voter purges are an effective way to keep large numbers of Democrats from the polls, intimidating election officials can stop vote counts, it’s important to have a secretary of state in place who can put her thumb on the scales in a close election, and if all else fails, the Supreme Court will bail you out.
Put them all together and you have a meta-lesson that Republicans took to heart: We can get away with anything. It doesn’t matter whether we’re the target of a stern editorial from The New York Times, or whether Democrats squawk. What matters is winning.
So in subsequent years they just kept on pushing, particularly after Barack Obama became president. Can we just filibuster everything? Sure, why not! Can we threaten to default on America’s debt? Go for it! Shut down the government? Have at it! The breaking of norms culminated in the refusal to allow Obama’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat to get so much as a hearing. One can’t help but wonder if at the time someone said, “Can we really just refuse to hear the nomination of a Supreme Court justice? Won’t we be punished?” And the answer was, “Who’s going to punish us? The voters? Give me a break.”
They were right, in 2016 at least. And let’s be honest: Voters in 2018 weren’t rejected the bottomless cynicism of the GOP nearly as much as they were rejecting Donald Trump. And now there’s a partisan Republican majority on the Supreme Court, which will be happy to rubber-stamp just about any move Republican states take to rig the game in the GOP’s favor.
We often hear laments in the media about how unrelentingly nasty and partisan American politics has become. But as it is today, only one of our two great parties demonstrates such outright contempt for democracy. The Republican Party simply does not believe in the idea that the candidate who gets the most votes is the one who should govern, should that candidate be a Democrat. And in the years to come, as the people they represent make up a smaller and smaller proportion of the American population, they’ll come to believe it in even less than they do now and rely even more on rigging the game in order to hold power. After all, who’s going to stop them?