Democrats Are in Denial About What They're Up Against

Ryan Cooper / The Week
Democrats Are in Denial About What They're Up Against Senator Ron Johnson said that Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin should unilaterally assert control of federal elections. (photo: Sarahbeth Maney/NYT)

On Friday morning, Democrats passed their Build Back Better agenda through the House. Only hours before their triumphant celebrations, however, reporter Reid Epstein hadpublished a bombshell New York Times article about how Wisconsin Republicans are preparing to set up permanent one-party rule and very possibly use that power to steal the 2024 election in the state.

Thus far, Democratic leadership has done nothing substantial to counter this threat, or even acknowledge it in any serious way. But if they can't get over their denial and start taking some action, the freedom of the 2024 election is legitimately in question.

Epstein reports the Wisconsin GOP has Big Lie-pilled itself into a frenzy, essentially claiming excuse to set up one-party rule. Several years ago, the party established a new agency, the Wisconsin Elections Commission, to oversee voting in the state. Then, last year, the commission carried out a number of emergency changes to procedures in keeping with the pandemic. Very few cared at the time, because those measures were reasonable and necessary.

But after former President Donald Trump lost the state, Republicans started hunting for pretexts to discredit the result and make sure it could never happen again. Initially, they ordered a report hoping to find voting irregularities. When that didn't work, they claimed the election commission's pandemic rules were illegal. The "Trump-aligned sheriff of Racine County, the state's fifth most populous county, recommended felony charges against five of the six members of the election commission for guidance they had given to municipal clerks early in the pandemic," writes Epstein.

The developing strategy seems to go something like this: First, the Wisconsin legislature districts are gerrymandered so it's nearly impossible for Democrats to win. Next, Republicans seize control of the state electoral process, as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) has already suggested doing, even over Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' veto. Then, either they rig the voting process such that Democrats can't win, or just award the state's electoral votes to the Republican candidate directly.

The basic idea here — handing out electoral votes through the legislature rather than after a vote — arguably wouldn't even be "illegal," since the Electoral College clauses in the Constitution stipulate that electors are chosen "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." Doing it over Evers' veto, though, would definitely violate state law and Supreme Court precedent. More to the point, the tactic would be a grotesque violation of the very political principles of a democratic republic, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution.

Fundamentally, the idea of "legality" can't stand up to someone who is sufficiently dishonest and shameless. You just claim up is down, black is white, and shout down anyone who says otherwise. Every political system relies on norms and shared understanding to some degree. So if Republicans can pull this off in Wisconsin, then it is absolutely guaranteed they will try it everywhere else they can. From there, it only takes a few swing states stolen for the presidency to be in the bag — at least in terms of "the rules."

Now, legal strategies are not the end of politics, particularly when it comes to de facto revolution and the abolition of democracy. The reaction of the masses and opposition parties also matters. Wisconsin Republicans are plainly counting on Democrats to lie down quietly while they're kicked in the teeth. It's not hard to see why, either; that's what I would expect to happen as well, because it's what Democrats have done for the last 21 years, ever since the Supreme Court made George W. Bush president.

As the writer Michael Sweeney suggests, the ridiculously high approval ratings for Republican governors in blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont — where these men often register higher approval among local Democrats than they do among Republicans — suggests a deep desire among rank-and-file liberals for an opposition party that isn't composed of violent lunatics. Democratic leadership, almost all of whom came of age in a time of bipartisan comity and collaboration that couldn't be more dead, has alternately pandered to and cultivated this delusional belief. During the presidential campaign, President Biden repeatedly promised that he was a guy who could reach across the aisle and get things done. Just this week, his administration took a victory lap over his bipartisan "achievement," and in doing so implicitly instructed liberals that Republicans are a normal party:

But they aren't. Biden did get an infrastructure bill through with some Republican votes — but this was entirely because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cynically calculated that was the most likely way to blow up the rest of the Biden agenda, a strategy that succeeded in delaying and hence shrinking both bills considerably. Meanwhile, Trump is busy purging all the House Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill anyway.

I can see why so many liberals grasp at straws to convince themselves Republicans have changed. But it just ain't so. Moreover, I doubt very much whether conservatives will be satisfied with mere political victory. The beating heart of modern conservative politics is a desire to dominate, humiliate, and increasingly inflict violence on liberals. Just look at the skyrocketing rate of assaults on flight attendants, mainly over mask rules, or the surge of death threats against election officials or other state bureaucrats, or the spate of inflamed conservatives threatening violence at school board meetings across the country.

In typical shameless fashion, Republicans justify their aggression by convincing themselves that liberals are engaged in some kind of Marxist-critical race theorist plot to overthrow democracy so that they have an excuse to do the same thing preemptively. (It's the Big Lie turned into an entire political philosophy — if we lose, it's because the other side cheated.)

The irony of all the throbbing metastatic insanity among Republicans is that it looks quite likely that they will win the 2022 midterms fair and square. If they nominated someone other than Trump or one of his many clones climbing the Republican ranks, they would likely be odds-on favorites to win in 2024 as well.

One major reason for this, I submit, is that Democrats have failed to convince their own voters — a substantial majority in the last election — about what Republicans are really up to. The leadership doesn't act like the republic is on the line, or can't bring themselves to believe it. That leaves their base either thinking things are basically fine, or despairing at the thought of fighting back without even their own president on their side.

The nonexistent response to the Wisconsin power grab is further proof Democratic institutions don't protect themselves. They must recognize this dangerous faction for what it is — and react.

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