Do Democrats understand what they’re facing?
Item: Last week Republicans in the North Carolina House used the occasion of 9/11 to call a surprise vote, passing a budget bill with a supermajority to override the Democratic governor’s veto. They were able to do this only because most Democrats were absent, some of them attending commemorative events; the Democratic leader had advised members that they didn’t need to be present because, he says, he was assured there would be no votes that morning.
Item: Also last week, Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a subpoena to the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to turn over a whistle-blower complaint that the intelligence community’s inspector general found credible and of “urgent concern.” We don’t know what the whistle-blower was warning about, but we do know that the law is clear: Such complaints must be referred to Congress, no exceptions allowed.
On the surface, these stories may seem to be about very different things. The fight in North Carolina is basically about the G.O.P.’s determination to deny health care to low-income Americans; the governor had threatened to veto any budget that didn’t expand Medicaid. The whistle-blower affair probably involves malfeasance by high government officials, quite possibly President Trump, that in some way threatens national security.
What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.
Similarly, last year America’s voters chose to give Democrats control of the House of Representatives. This still leaves Democrats without the ability to pass legislation, since Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But the House, by law, has important additional powers — the right to be informed of what’s going on in the executive branch, such as complaints by whistle-blowers, and the right to issue subpoenas demanding information relevant to governing.
The Trump administration, however, has evidently decided that none of that matters. So what if Democrats demand information they’re legally entitled to? So what if they issue subpoenas? After all, law enforcement has to be carried out by the Justice Department — and under William Barr, Justice has effectively become just another arm of the G.O.P.
This is the context in which you want to think about the latest round of revelations about Brett Kavanaugh.
First of all, we now know that the F.B.I., essentially at Republican direction, severely limited its investigation into Kavanaugh’s past. So Kavanaugh was appointed to a powerful, lifetime position without a true vetting.
Second, both Kavanaugh’s background and the circumstances of his appointment suggest that Mitch McConnell went to unprecedented lengths to create a Republican bloc on the Supreme Court that will thwart anything and everything Democrats try to accomplish, even if they do manage to take both Congress and the White House. In particular, as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, it seems extremely likely that this court will block any meaningful action on climate change.What can Democrats do about this situation? They need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say. So winning isn’t enough; they also have to be prepared for that confrontation.
And surely the first step is recognizing the problem exists. Which brings me to the Democratic presidential primary race.
The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination differ considerably in both their personalities and their policy proposals, but these pale beside their differences from Donald Trump and his party. All of them are decent human beings; all would, if given the chance, move America in a notably more progressive direction.
The real chasm between the candidates is, instead, in the extent to which they get it — that is, the extent to which they understand what they’re facing in the modern G.O.P.
The big problem with Joe Biden, still the front-runner, is that he obviously doesn’t get it. He’s made it clear on many occasions that he considers Trump an aberration and believes that he could have productive, amicable relations with Republicans once Trump is gone.
Which raises the question: Even if Biden can win, is he too oblivious to govern effectively?
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.
You may not have noticed this when it happened, but North Carolina elected a Democratic governor in 2016. It was a close race, and Republicans demanded multiple recounts, but eventually they conceded and Roy Cooper was declared the winner.
But that didn’t mean everything was over. After all, there was another month left in which lame duck Republican Pat McRory was still governor and the Republican legislature was still running things. So they did something unique: they passed a series of bills that stripped the governor of some of his powers. Cooper sued after he took office, of course, and the whole mess is currently working its way through the courts. Still, as corrupt as this was, at least it was just North Carolina, which has a recent history of anti-democratic actions barely matched since the end of Reconstruction.
.. In the same way that voter ID bills spread throughout red states after the first one produced light bulbs all over GOP-land, the same thing is happening here. Republicans who lost reelection bids in November are casting their eyes toward North Carolina and thinking that those Tarheels had a pretty good idea. Here’s Michigan:
.. The incoming Democrats had promised a crackdown on dark money contributions, and this is an obvious attempt to stop them. The new commission would be split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, which would halt campaign finance reform in its tracks. And if Michigan can do it, you know that Scott Walker must be looking on from Wisconsin wondering if he can do the same thing.
.. And so the red splotch expands, as Republicans desperately try to thwart democracy and the usual peaceful transfer of power. Will our courts let them get away with this? Stay tuned.
Legislators passed a slate of bills to sharply reduce the power of the incoming governor, over the heated objections of Democrats and hundreds of protestors.
The North Carolina General Assembly on Friday wrapped up a special session in which the Republicans who dominate both chambers mounted a brazen and successful effort to strip the incoming Democratic governor of a host of powersafforded to his Republican predecessor and many governors before. Having lost the governor’s seat in November’s election, the GOP legislature opted to simply reduce the governor’s power drastically. The two most prominent billsinvolve the elections system and the governor’s right to make appointments.
.. Pat McCrory, the outgoing GOP governor, quickly signed the electoral-reform bill into law. He has been presented with the bill reducing the governor’s appointments, but has not yet signed it. McCrory, who narrowly lost to Attorney General Roy Cooper in his quest for reelection, had not made any statement on the takeover bid, and he himself had tangled with the legislature over separation of powers, at one point successfully suing to recover appointment powers.On the appointments front, the legislature withdrew the governor’s ability to make appointments to the state board of education and the boards of trustees of University of North Carolina-system schools; subjected his cabinet appointees to senate approval; and reduced the number of appointments the governor can make for government jobs.
.. It is difficult and perhaps impossible to construe the changes as anything more than naked politics. Leading Republicans even admitted that they might not have pursued the changes if McCrory had won reelection. The timing of the changes was also controversial: Legislators returned to Raleigh for a special session billed as a chance to pass disaster-relief bills for victims of flooding and wildfires. Rumors flew that Republicans would attempt to pack the Supreme Court to restore a conservative majority. That didn’t happen; instead, as soon as the disaster-relief bill had been signed, Republican leaders gaveled the special session to a close, then promptly opened a new special session, with no declared agenda—surprising both the press and Democratic members. House Speaker Tim Moore said the decision to do so had only been made on Wednesday, a claim debunked when documents putting it into motion, dated Monday, were revealed.
.. It appeared that part of the reason for conducting the business in a special session was to avoid rallying of opposition. That was a tactic that Republicans used to pass HB2, the state’s controversial “bathroom bill,” in the spring, and it worked this week. Democrats warned that just like HB2, the new legislation might have unintended effects, and they accused Republicans of sidestepping public opinion. Certainly, it is true that the GOP will return in the new year retaining their current supermajorities, which means they likely could have forced changes through a Cooper veto. In this case, all parties had two days to review the legislation, nearly four times as much as they did to review HB2 before it was signed into law.