Officially, a big part of the federal government shut down late last month. In important ways, however, America’s government went AWOL almost two years earlier, when Donald Trump was inaugurated.
After all, politicians supposedly seek office in order to get stuff done — to tackle real problems and implement solutions. But neither Trump, who spends his energy inventing crises at the border, nor the Republicans who controlled Congress for two years have done any of that. Their only major legislative achievement was a tax cut that blew up the deficit without, as far as anyone can tell, doing anything to enhance the economy’s long-run growth prospects.
Meanwhile, there has been no hint of the infrastructure plan Trump promised to deliver. And after many years of denouncing Obamacare and promising to provide a far better replacement, Republicans turned out to have no idea how to do that, and in particular no plan to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions.
Why can’t Republicans govern? It’s not just that their party is committed to an ideology that says that government is always the problem, never the solution. Beyond that, they have systematically deprived themselves of the ability to analyze policies and learn from evidence, because hard thinking might lead someone to question received doctrine.
And Republicans still control the Senate and the White House. So even when (if?) the shutdown ends, it will be at least two years before we have a government in Washington that’s actually capable of, or even interested in, governing.
Until recently Republicans had a virtual lock on state government. Almost half the population lived in states with Republican “trifectas,” that is, G.O.P. control of both houses plus the governorship. Democrats had comparable control in California, and pretty much nowhere else.
But elections since then have transformed the picture. New Jersey and Washington went full Democratic in 2017, and six more states, including Illinois and New York, flipped in November. At this point more than a third of Americans live under full Democratic control, not far short of the Republican total.
These newly empowered majorities are moving quickly to start governing again. And the experience of states that already had Democratic trifectas suggests that they may achieve a lot.
And health care isn’t the only front for new action. For example, Newsom is also proposing major new spending on education and housing affordability. The latter is very important: Soaring housing costs are the biggest flaw in California’s otherwise impressive success story.
Now, let’s be clear: Not all of the new Democratic policy proposals will actually be implemented, and not all of those that do go into effect will live up to expectations. There’s no such thing as perfection, in policy or in life, and leaders who never experience failures or setbacks aren’t taking enough risks.
The point, however, is that newly empowered state and local politicians do seem willing to take risks and try new things in an effort to make progress against the nation’s problems.
And that’s a very hopeful sign for America, because their example may prove contagious.
Justice Louis Brandeis famously described the states as the laboratories of democracy; right now they’re the places where we’re seeing what it looks like when elected officials try to do what they were elected to do, and actually govern. If we’re lucky, two years from now that attitude may re-establish itself in the nation’s capital.
Only Trump’s flamboyant awfulness stands in the way of his party’s power grab.
Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.
No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.
.. If you want to understand what’s happening to our country, the book you really need to read is “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. As the authors — professors of government at Harvard — point out, in recent decades a number of nominally democratic nations have become de facto authoritarian, one-party states. Yet none of them have had classic military coups, with tanks in the street.
.. What we’ve seen instead are coups of a subtler form:
- takeovers or intimidation of the news media,
- rigged elections that disenfranchise opposing voters,
- new rules of the game that give the ruling party overwhelming control even if it loses the popular vote,
- corrupted courts.
.. The classic example is Hungary, where Fidesz, the white nationalist governing party, has effectively
- taken over the bulk of the media;
- destroyed the independence of the judiciary;
- rigged voting to enfranchise supporters and disenfranchise opponents;
- gerrymandered electoral districts in its favor; and
- altered the rules so that a minority in the popular vote translates into a supermajority in the legislature.
Does a lot of this sound familiar? It should. You see, Republicans have been adopting similar tactics — not at the federal level (yet), but in states they control... the states, which Justice Louis Brandeis famously pronounced the laboratories of democracy, “are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.”
.. Thus, voter purges and deliberate restriction of minority access to the polls have become standard practice in much of America. Would Brian Kemp, the governor-elect of Georgia — who oversaw his own election as secretary of state — have won without these tactics? Almost certainly not.
.. you get a lot less reassured if you look at what happened at the state level, where votes often weren’t reflected in terms of control of state legislatures.
Let’s talk, in particular, about what’s happening in Wisconsin.
.. Having lost every statewide office in Wisconsin last month, Republicans are using the lame-duck legislative session to drastically curtail these offices’ power, effectively keeping rule over the state in the hands of the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature.
.. What has gotten less emphasis is the fact that G.O.P. legislative control is also undemocratic. Last month Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the votes in State Assembly elections — but they ended up with only 37 percent of the seats.
.. In other words, Wisconsin is turning into Hungary on the Great Lakes, a state that may hold elections, but where elections don’t matter, because the ruling party retains control no matter what voters do.
.. As far as I can tell, not a single prominent Republican in Washington has condemned
- the power grab in Wisconsin,
- the similar grab in Michigan, or even
- what looks like outright electoral fraud in North Carolina.
.. Elected Republicans don’t just increasingly share the values of white nationalist parties like Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice; they also share those parties’ contempt for democracy. The G.O.P. is an authoritarian party in waiting.
.. Which is why we should be grateful for Trump. If he weren’t so flamboyantly awful, Democrats might have won the House popular vote by only 4 or 5 points, not 8.6 points.
.. And in that case, Republicans might have maintained control — and we’d be well along the path to permanent one-party rule.
Instead, we’re heading for a period of divided government, in which the opposition party has both the power to block legislation and, perhaps even more important, the ability to conduct investigations backed by subpoena power into Trump administration malfeasance.
.. But this may be no more than a respite. For whatever may happen to Donald Trump, his party has turned its back on democracy. And that should terrify you.
.. The fact is that the G.O.P., as currently constituted, is willing to do whatever it takes to seize and hold power. And as long as that remains true, and Republicans remain politically competitive, we will be one election away from losing democracy in America.