The lame-duck power plays by Republican legislatures in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin to seize power from recently elected Democratic Party executive officials are just the latest egregious efforts by the Republican Party to deem Democrats unconstitutional.
What does it mean when Republicans deem Democrats unconstitutional? It means that Republicans do not believe that the Democratic Party can legitimately hold power. The GOP will use its power to enact last-minute laws to hurt Democratic constituencies and make it harder for Democrats to win power; if they somehow do, Republicans strip them of authority or prevent them from governing.
“We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in,” said Robin Vos, the Republican Speaker of the House in Wisconsin, as he explained why Republicans would gut the authority of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
For Republicans, political power is now no different than an exclusionary childhood clubhouse: No Democrats allowed.
This policy effort to refuse Democrats power, at all costs, did not begin with the lame-duck session of 2018. What’s happening now is a part of an ongoing process by Republicans in the courts and in elected office to increase power for their own wealthy interests, attack and divide Democratic Party constituencies and create voting obstacles that dilute equal representation.
Citizens United Turbocharged Republican Campaigns
In 2010, the five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices voted to legalize the use of unlimited corporate and union funds for independent election activities in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. The decision upended two decades of precedent at the federal level and a century of precedent in some states.
Republican political operatives immediately took advantage of this new flood of money at the state level through an outside party group called the Republican State Legislative Committee. The group used newly allowed corporate money to fund an unprecedented campaign to win state legislatures and gain control of the redistricting process after the decennial census.
Two studies have shown that the Citizens United decision increased the number of state legislative seats won by Republicans in the 2010 election. One of those studies attributed at least a 10-point swing towards the Republican candidate due to the post-Citizens United spending in Michigan and North Carolina and at least a seven-point swing in Wisconsin.
The RSLC’s efforts worked in tandem with billionaires interested in the various states. In Michigan, the DeVos family, rich off their Amway fortune, pumped newly allowed millions into outside groups to elect Republicans. Art Pope, a North Carolina multimillionaire, funneled his efforts into his own newly created network in North Carolina. And in Wisconsin, the billionaire Koch brothers of Kansas and local roofing billionaire Diane Hendricks spent huge amounts to elect Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican legislature.
‘Divide And Conquer’
The next plan was to directly attack Democratic Party constituencies and funding sources, enact extreme gerrymanders to prevent the party from gaining power and make it harder to vote, especially for Democrats.
Walker described part of this strategy to Hendricks just after he took office in 2011. Hendricks asked him whether he would destroy unions in Wisconsin to help make it a truly red-state. He replied he would move forward with legislation to gut public employee unions.
“You just divide and conquer,” Walker told Hendricks.
Walker and the Republican legislature did just that and passed a bill gutting public employee unions over the objections of massive protests. The anti-union measure struck at the heart of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Public employee unions are a key piece in the coalition of interest groups that make up the party by providing organization and money.
Gut Labor Unions
But this wasn’t the end of the anti-union push. Walker and state Republicans successfully pushed to gut public employee unions by making Wisconsin a right-to-work state in 2015. Republicans in Michigan, the heart of the United Auto Workers, passed their own right-to-work law in 2013 devastating both public and private employee unions.
The Republican attack on unions was not just aimed at restoring the traditional hierarchical power structure of management over labor in the workplace, but also in decreasing union political influence and atomizing workers. The second point is important as unions provide a space for diverse groups of workers to meet, talk and organize in solidarity around their collective interests as a class. This makes it more likely that workers will embrace issues that unite them and their fellow workers in the workplace and not solely focus on the social issues that divide them.
The Republican attack on unions was not just aimed at restoring the traditional hierarchical power structure of management over labor in the workplace, but also in decreasing union political influence and atomizing workers.
Studies have shown that the implementation of right-to-work laws and the subsequent drop in union membership correlates with a decrease in Democratic Party voting percentage. Not only do unions create solidarity across races and religion, but their get-out-the-vote efforts help increase the voting behavior of the poor, working class and African-American communities
Walker’s initial strike on unions, driven by a will to power and the interests of his biggest financial backers, led Democrats to call for recall elections of Walker and a spate of Republican legislators and judges.
To fight the recall efforts, Walker immediately ran back into the arms of the Citizens United decision. He reached out to his biggest donors with a scheme to save himself and his allies by funding efforts through an outside group. Walker flew around the country soliciting massive checks from the Republican billionaires for the unlimited outside group campaign, even though candidates are technically not supposed to coordinate with the independent political efforts legalized by the Supreme Court.
A subsequent investigation into the alleged illegal coordination was shut down as by Republican judges who won their elections with support from Walker’s outside group. Another Republican judge ruled Walker’s scheme was legal under Citizens United and he applauded the maneuvers to evade campaign finance law. The Republican legislature later passed a law banning such future investigations, destroyed the state’s election watchdog and legalized coordination with outside groups.
Target African-Americans ‘With Surgical Precision’
As this was going on the Republican-controlled legislatures in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin all carefully gerrymandered their states to solidify control for at least the next decade.
Republicans plotted to minimize Democratic seats in Michigan by cramming “Dem garbage,” as one staffer said in an email, into a minimal number of seats around the state’s big cities. In Wisconsin, Republican legislators hired an outside law firm to conduct a secret redistricting process that created one of the most severe gerrymanders in state history. A three-judge court of appeals called the gerrymander drawn by North Carolina Republicans, “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
The North Carolina map was struck down in 2017 after Justice Clarence Thomas, the most conservative justice who is also the court’s lone African-American, joined the Supreme Court’s liberals in ruling that the state’s Republicans violated the Voting Rights Act by constructing an illegal racial gerrymander harming the state’s African-American population.
Although the Voting Rights Act was held up by the court in this instance, the court struck down a key part of the landmark law in 2013. The Shelby County v. Holder decision was, like Citizens United before it, a partisan ruling whereby the court’s five conservative justices ― all appointed by Republicans ― sharply limited the power of the federal government to implement the Voting Rights Act’s election laws. This action allowed states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to bypass federal clearance for any new rules from the federal government absent a new formula being passed by Congress. Free from needing their laws cleared by the Justice Department, these states could now enact discriminatory laws with the only concern being a yearslong court challenge.
North Carolina immediately enacted one of the most restrictive voting laws requiring voter identification, limiting early voting hours, ending same-day registration and implementing other new constraints. An appeals court ruled against this law claiming it was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” but it remained in place through the 2014 election.
Although Wisconsin is not covered by the formula invalidated by the Supreme Court Republicans, the state also enacted stringent voter restrictions, including onerous identification requirements. One in 10 voters in 2016 were blocked or disinclined from voting in the state because they didn’t have or didn’t think they had the proper identification, according to one University of Wisconsin study. The biggest decreases in voting due to the law appeared in cities with high African-American populations like in Milwaukee and students like in Madison.
Lame-duck Power Grabs
Now, after all of these barriers to make it more difficult for Democrats to win any office failed, Republicans are declaring that only one party is allowed to govern.
In the current lame-duck session, Wisconsin Republicans stripped power from the incoming Democratic attorney general, removed some rule-making authority from the Democratic governor and blocked the governor from ending Walker’s corrupt Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. They also restricted early voting hours and made it harder to end the work requirements they imposed on Medicaid recipients. These Republicans do all this because they view the votes of Democrats, particularly African-Americans, as illegitimate.
“If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Republican Speaker of the House Vos said after election night. “We would have all five constitutional officers, and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.”
Next door in Michigan, Republicans in legislature similarly moved to weaken the incoming Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state. To protect their big donors, they prevented the secretary of state’s office from conducting oversight of campaign finance and elections. Incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson campaigned on requiring disclosure of dark money in elections, but Republicans also made it illegal to require such disclosure. They also stripped the attorney general’s office of the ability to intervene in lawsuits. Republicans also gutted a minimum wage law, a paid sick leave law and are looking to impose new restrictions on unions and attack environmental protections.
These Republican legislatures are just copying what North Carolina Republicans did after losing the governorship in 2016. They gutted Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s power then and, after losing their supermajorities in the state House and Senate in 2018, are trying to gut even more now. Statehouse Republicans are now trying to pass a law that would prevent any board of elections in the state from having a majority of Democrats on it ― a blatant attempt to tilt all future elections to Republicans. This comes as Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris faces extremely credible allegations that he rigged his own election through fraud.
No Democrats Allowed
Republican efforts to refuse power to Democrats are not restricted to the current states seeking to strip Democrats of power. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) refusal to hold hearings on former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is a similar declaration that Democrats cannot wield power. Senate Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went even further saying that they would keep the Supreme Court at eight justices for four to eight years had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election rather than allow her to appoint any new justice. No Democrats allowed.
The ethos behind the “Democrats are unconstitutional” process is that governance by non-Republicans is inherently corrupt. Democrats do not represent “real Americans,” as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin put it in 2008. You can see this in Speaker Vos’ assertion that the votes of Madison and Milwaukee are less important, less noble than those of the rural and exurban (obviously the whiter) areas. When President Donald Trump speaks of “draining the swamp,” he does not mean ending the influence of lobbyists or preventing elected officeholder from being paid directly by Saudi Arabia ― quite the opposite. He means that Democrats, and the groups of people they represent, have been drained from power. Trump’s closing pitch for the 2018 midterms was that Democrats represented “mob rule,” a form of inappropriate power meant to be opposed with obvious racial undertones.
All of this points to the one thread that runs through all of these efforts to restrict politics and governance to Republicans: Each attempt to declare Democrats unconstitutional specifically attacks the power of African-Americans. African-Americans are heavily represented in public and private employee unions, suffer most from voting restrictions (particularly those designed with “surgical precision” to harm them) and contribute less money to campaigns than white Americans, nevermind powerful corporations.
The specific, sometimes clearly purposeful, harming of the interests of African-Americans echoes the most infamous era of democratic backsliding in American history. After the collapse of post-Civil War Reconstruction, Southern Democrats calling themselves “Redeemers” seized power in former Confederate states, often by violence, and ended black political power and freedom by imposing mandatory work laws that reinstituted slavery in all but name and gutting voting rights, among many other terrible things. The democratic backsliding that re-imposed white supremacy and one-party rule lasted for more than half-a-century.
The question now is whether or not the attacks on democracy, which inherently involve attacks on African-American political rights, and efforts to mandate one-party rule by Republicans, the heirs to the Southern Redeemer culture, is a sign of things to come or a dying gasp of a political minority out of step with the times. The voters will have to sort that out, if they’re still allowed to.