The states have become laboratories of autocracy – New York Daily News
On Jan. 6, thousands of insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. Among them, one group stands out: 57 were Republican state and local elected officials. This is no coincidence, and reflects the most dangerous risk to American democracy — the increasingly anti-democratic views and actions in statehouses across the country.
As I’ve documented in my new book “Laboratories of Autocracy,” these are the largely anonymous politicians who are discreetly eroding our democratic foundations, and the truth is they are far more dangerous in their statehouses than in D.C. If there’s a death knell to American democracy, they will be the ones to deliver it through some combination of state-level bills across the country — and unlike an insurrection, it will come with the misleading trappings of legitimacy.
Endless attacks against democracy in states have long flown under the radar. For every outrageous piece of legislation that makes national news like the Texas abortion ban or Georgia’s move to restrict voting, there are scores of others that are hardly noticed — and countless more looming. Attacks on independent courts, or elections officials, or the teaching of history, or protests. Extreme gerrymandering (i.e. election-rigging) is taking place as we speak. All are part of an anti-democratic playbook that we’re used to seeing in other countries, not within our own borders.
Even when these state laws lead to protests, boycotts or lawsuits, the news cycle inevitably moves on before we return to the core question: What the hell is going on in statehouses, and why is it so difficult to stop?
The answer is bleak.
In state after state, legislatures no longer operate as functioning democratic institutions and are fueled by an entire generation of majorities that, thanks to effective gerrymandering, have essentially never experienced real elections. With hardly a trace of democracy left at the state level, all the incentives are warped.
On the one hand, these little-known politicians reap rewards for attacking democracy, becoming ever more extreme, and taking actions that sacrifice public outcomes for private profiteering. On the other, the greatest risk to their grip on power is a robust democracy, and they face little accountability in undermining it. They are always on offense, and any setbacks are usually temporary, as they learn from one another’s mistakes.
Unless and until those who care about democracy fully wake up to this state-level threat — and do something to counter it directly, and continuously, at every level — the anti-democratic onslaught will only accelerate. And if history is any indicator, it will ultimately prevail.
But as dire as things look, there is still time — but it is running out as the elections in Virginia and the filibuster of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in the Senate have shown. If Americans wake up to the problem, we can fight back.
What to do?
One key lesson of history is that the federal government must play a central role in protecting democracy against state-level attacks. It’s a role the Founding Fathers explicitly required the federal government to shoulder at moments that statehouses slip away from democracy, therefore risking the health of the entire nation. The notion that a procedural tool such as the filibuster would get in the way of the federal responsibility to protect democracy would have left the Founders flabbergasted.
Fighting back also means re-creating a functioning democracy in state after state, along with the accountability that goes with it. It’s time to go on offense, for democracy, at the state level. It’s a huge task, and there is a role for every American who cares about democracy to play. And it’s a cause that’s far larger than one party. This involves far more people running for office at all levels, far more people registering to vote, and far more people committing to fight a long battle for democracy beyond a single campaign cycle and more broadly than on the narrow map of “swing states” for federal elections. That’s exactly how those attacking democracy have thought of it, and they’re winning as a result.
The term “Never Trump” took hold in 2016 and 2020, and it played a helpful role last fall. But it’s misleading. The stakes are so much bigger than that. That’d be akin to having a “Never Andrew Johnson” movement in the 1870s instead of “Never Jim Crow.”
The real question now is simply: Do you support democracy, or don’t you? If you do, it’s time to fight for it. Everywhere.
Pepper is former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.