For the first twenty-two decades or so of this republic, the rules were simple: If your side lost an election, you conceded defeat, stepped aside, and let the other team take over. This peaceful transition of power has been a hallmark of the American system—indeed, of every democracy—a sign that, like it or not, the will of the people, exercised within the confines of the law, was paramount.
So it went after George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, despite the enduring controversy in Florida. And so it was, likewise, that the Obama administration ceded power to Donald Trump, despite Trump’s popular-vote loss and his Russian assistance. The big exception, of course, came in 1860, but we settled that one with a war.
Such was the state of things until November 2016, when Roy Cooper had the gall to defeat Governor Pat McCrory, a bumbling oaf who walked headfirst into the buzz saw of HB 2. Cooper didn’t win by much—about ten thousand votes—but it was enough to set the Republican-dominated General Assembly on edge. Lawmakers used a special lame-duck session that was ostensibly about hurricane relief to rein in the new governor’s powers, stripping him of his ability to make cabinet appointments without legislative approval, hire some state workers, and name trustees to the state’s university system, among other things. The goal, GOP leaders acknowledged, was to turn the Democratic governor into little more than a figurehead.
Some of those machinations didn’t survive legal challenges, but the playbook did. And so, after decisive statewide defeats in Michigan and Wisconsin last month, the lame-duck Republicans legislatures went to work, seeking to solidify their power regardless of what their voters wanted. In Michigan, they moved to gut minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, shift oversight of campaign finance rules away from the incoming secretary of state, and allow the legislature to intervene in lawsuits affecting the state, after the attorney general-elect won with a campaign promise not to defend Michigan’s homophobic adoption law.
Wisconsin’s play was even starker: Republicans there want to block the incoming governor from pulling out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act; weaken his control over a scandal-ridden economic development agency that the governor-elect promised to close; undermine the attorney general-elect by giving lawmakers the ability to hire a special counsel when they don’t like what the attorney general is doing; lower voter turnout by shrinking early voting; and move the date of a 2020 Supreme Court election so that it doesn’t overlap with the Democratic presidential primary, thus giving the Republican a better chance.
Legislatures have long used lame-duck sessions to pass controversial legislation. But that’s not what we’re seeing now. These are naked, unabashed power grabs—sore losers subverting the will of the voters and kneecap the next administration before it can begin.
And the people behind them aren’t even trying to hide their intent: Without the power grab, Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos told his Republican colleagues, they “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.”
Vos has a point: The voters of his state elected a man whose goals are in direct conflict with those of the Republican legislative majorities and, to a large degree, the people they represent.
All three of these states—North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin—are microcosms of a dynamic playing out all over the country, and more so during the Trump era: the rural-urban divide. Since the Obama presidency, Democrats have increasingly built their base around multicultural and educated urban coalitions—and, thanks to Trump, white suburban women—while Republicans have been forced to rely on white cultural conservatives in the sticks. This inherently gives Republicans a political advantage, with Democrats packing themselves into fewer legislative and congressional districts. Add to that aggressive gerrymandering, and Republicans have locked in power regardless of what voters think.
Indeed, in North Carolina, Democrats won the statewide popular vote for both the House and Senate but will find themselves in the minority. The same thing happened in Michigan, where voters also passed an initiative to end gerrymandering. In Wisconsin, where Scott Walker lost the governor’s race, he carried sixty-three of ninety-nine state Assembly districts.
This is the tyranny of the minority: Legislatures that derive their power from geography and gerrymandering are using their “majorities” to undermine those whose power derives from actual people. (This same dynamic has given Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and enabled Trump to win the presidency.) It’s cynical and shameless, sure, but it’s also a fundamentally racist proposition that the vote of a white man in farm country should be worth more than that of a black or brown woman in the city.
If Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that the norms underpinning American democracy are fragile. So long as the minority, emboldened by an increasingly homogenous base and petrified of losing power, is willing to impose its will in direct defiance of the majority’s wishes, those underpinnings will only become weaker.
This is an existential threat to our system of government, and we damn well better begin treating it as such. The virus is only going to spread.