Tony Evers must do more than blame Republicans for the failure to delay the April 7 election.
Update: Evers issued an executive order on Monday afternoon that suspends in-person voting. The Wisconsin Supreme Court blocked the order, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned an extension for absentee ballots.
What we’ve seen in Wisconsin over the past few days is the culmination of the Republican Party’s decades-long effort to hold onto power at any cost. A crisis of democratic legitimacy has collided with a massive public health crisis. But we’re also seeing the consequences of the Democratic Party’s slide into a weak-willed opposition that insists on trying to play by rules that no longer apply and that usually acts far too reluctant and apologetic about doing anything that’s halfway right.
Democratic Governor Tony Evers and his administration haven’t acted quickly or dramatically enough to protect Wisconsinites from the spread of COVID-19 or to postpone Wisconsin’s April 7 election, which will include a Presidential primary, an important state Supreme Court race, and a ballot question that would amend the state Constitution. Yes, Evers has done far better than the craven, scientifically ignorant governors of states including Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. But right now he’s facing down a crisis that endangers both human life and the right to vote. In-person voting this Tuesday, and/or an early stop to absentee voting, will do especially great harm in areas of the state that helped Evers win a very narrow election and that most desperately need good leadership in the state capitol.
Short of some very sweeping action very soon, Evers deserves to lose our confidence. Keeping this election date is unacceptable. If he fails to act, Evers will knowingly disenfranchise thousands of Wisconsinites. He will knowingly undermine his own and other officials’ efforts to stop the spread of a deadly virus. He will demoralize the state’s voters, making it even easier for Donald Trump to win the state again in November. He will show Republicans that it’s virtually as easy as it was under Scott Walker to step all over our most vulnerable populations. Postponing the election will indeed create a political and legal mess. Keeping the date will create a mess with a bunch of people needlessly exposed, ill, or dead. Evers has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on African-American neighborhoods in Milwaukee, which only makes his failure to act here more egregious.
The Republicans who control both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature have done nothing to help on either the pandemic or the election, and are currently asking the federal courts to limit absentee voting, which would force people who haven’t voted yet to either sit this one out or risk exposure to coronavirus at their polling places. When Evers called a special legislative session for this Saturday, Republicans contemptuously gaveled in and gaveled right back out without doing a thing in between. They’ve pretended that it would be impossible to provide every eligible voter in Wisconsin with a mail-in ballot. And because they are far-right maniacs to the bitter end, they asked Evers to allow in-person religious services during the pandemic.
Evers denied that last request, but otherwise is pretty much throwing his hands up in the face of Republican intransigence, apparently hesitant to take the extraordinary action we need. The reasoning seems to be that the legislature won’t let him use emergency powers to push the election back, so the state supreme court wouldn’t let him either. He also has proposed getting the Wisconsin National Guard involved in managing the polls, which is a terrible idea. A bunch of uniformed military personnel posted around what are supposed to be bastions of civilian governance? No way.
I won’t make the mistake of treating this picture as symmetrical. The Democratic Party is a misguided, venal institution, determined to smother its most dynamic left-wing voices and remain a center-right party in the name of political realism. It hopes against all evidence that voters will get excited about simply making the country a tiny bit less bigoted and exploitative, but, you know, keeping it bigoted and exploitative at its core. The Republican Party is part of a ring of resurgent fascism that stains the globe, from Hungary to India to the Philippines to Brazil, and is hell-bent on making the economic, social, and environmental crises of our time as extreme and cruel as possible. People can call it a death cult without exaggerating. It hopes, with a fair bit of evidence, that its base has checked out so thoroughly into an alternate reality that no outrage will be too much, and that in any case there are myriad ways to hold power without the consent of the governed. Like a lot of people, I vote for one in hopes of protecting people from the violent excesses of the other. If we want to have a functioning, pluralistic democracy, then one of these parties should be replaced with a coalition of leftist and centrist parties, and one should be utterly destroyed. Wisconsinites have a special duty to make sure the latter happens. I’ve been thinking a lot about Osita Nwanevu’s recent essay in The New Republic, which calls for a “moral crusade” that goes far beyond simply trying to beat Republicans in elections. I think the piece should resound deeply in Wisconsin, the birthplace of the Republican Party and the setting of so much of its mythology, from abolitionism to progressivism to McCarthyism to the model-bill beatdown of the 2010s.
As plenty of people before me have pointed out, Republican legislators sprang into action to hold a lame-duck session in 2018 to pass a package of laws aimed at curtailing the powers of the incoming Democratic administration and turning legislative leadership into a sort of parallel executive branch, but have dragged their feet on the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of this writing has killed 56 Wisconsinites and made it impossible for tens of thousands of us to make a living. The lame-duck laws themselves have gummed up Evers’ response to the pandemic, as the Wisconsin Budget Project’s Tamarine Cornelius (one of the best political commentators in the state right now, seriously) detailed in a recent Twitter thread. On the federal level, we’ve gotten a feeble economic stimulus and the usual narcissistic ravings from Donald Trump, an ever-escalating sideshow of mass negligent homicide.
Wisconsinites of all people should not be surprised. Our state is the contemporary model for what Republicans do when they have unchecked power: They wall themselves off from accountability and electoral consequences, they create downright predatory policies, they blur the line between party and state as much as possible, they weave even more corruption into the everyday fabric of politics. Republicans in the state legislature don’t want to spend money to protect kids in Milwaukee from lead poisoning. Why would we expect them to protect us from coronavirus? Republicans have drawn gerrymandered legislative maps that make it difficult—not impossible, but very, very difficult—to vote out their majorities, have openly stated that they don’t respect statewide election results if voters in Madison and Milwaukee end up voting with the majority, have opposed efforts to expand early voting, and have used voter ID laws to suppress voter turnout. Why would we expect them to ensure that voting is easy, safe, or even possible?
The problem that this creates for Democrats is that it becomes very difficult to work within the informal norms and informal checks and balances that we rely on to protect us from the worst impulses of politicians and other state actors. We have two groups sharing power. One delights in shredding up the rules and flouting the norms, rewriting the rules as it goes to remake the whole system in the image of its own corruption, because it’s laser-focused on building and holding power and just doesn’t really care about anything else. One is somewhat OK at following the rules, but hasn’t earned any particular moral authority in that regard. Republicans have disemboweled whatever semblance of liberal democracy we used to have. Democrats are slipping around in the blood with a needle and thread.
There’s no way that playing by the usual rules will restore a sense of functioning democracy in the United States, much less help us replace a system that was never truly free or just in the first place. A federal judiciary and Supreme Court stacked with Trump appointees will prevent that from happening for at least a generation. It seems to me that the only way out for Democrats to serve as an effective opposition is to flout the laws and norms too—or at least to serve the spirit of those laws while meaningfully challenging the federal courts and the Trump administration—to truly earn popular support by going rogue with measures that protect basic human rights and dignity. Yes, I’m aware of all the ways this could go deeply wrong, but if we stay on our current path, things are bound to go the kind of deeply wrong that leads to full-on right-wing totalitarianism and genocide. We’re already in a crisis, we’re already in the ruins of democracy, we’re already headed off the cliff. As scary and crazy as it all is, we have to figure out how to make the best of our current, upended reality.
The fight over Wisconsin’s election is happening against a backdrop of downright sacrificial rhetoric from across the American right. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, very likely the most useless person in Congress, argued in a USA Today op-ed that, well, people die all the time and as many people as possible should just get back to work to keep the economy chugging along, risk be damned and the government’s responsibility to protect us from preventable carnage be extra damned. (I’m not linking to it. Seriously, shame on USA Today for publishing this literally lethally stupid argument.) Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is, uh, retweeting Dr. Drew to try to convince us that the coronavirus, which has killed healthy people my age and younger, is mostly quite mild. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, went on Tucker Carlson’s white-nationalist Fox News show to argue that the elderly should put themselves at risk in the name of economic growth. Underpinning Patrick’s statement was an even more sinister and fanatical notion: That our economic model, which puts mindless growth ahead of meeting human needs, is our one great and true inheritance as Americans, to be proudly passed down to each succeeding generation even when it demands a perverse and bloody toll. As outlandish as that sounds, it also rests on a cold logic. Republicans defend this economic model because it enriches and empowers a minority of wealthy white people, at the expense of everyone else.
Republicans justify keeping the April 7 election date in the name of safeguarding voting rights isn’t just blackly comic, but a farce that threatens to consume all the light in the universe. The Wisconsin GOP is all too glad to play fast and loose with election dates when it’s a matter of political convenience and not a literal matter of life and death. In 2018, then-Gov. Scott Walker tried to keep two vacant state legislative seats open for more than a year, rather than calling special elections as the letter of state law clearly required. When a Dane County judge ordered Walker to call the special elections, Walker instead huddled up with Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to call a special session and try and swiftly re-write state law so that it would simply say what they wanted it to say and not what the judge (correctly) said it did. (To deepen the fuckery, keep in mind that the two legislative districts in question wouldn’t have been represented in any legislative vote passing these changes to state law.) In the end, Walker relented and called the special elections. But it’s worth noting the lengths Republicans were willing to go to in this case. Not to safeguard public health, but to forestall a couple of elections that felt politically risky and a bit annoying logistically.
Evers, like many other Democrats often do, is making the mistake of offering too pale a contrast. He needs to make an emergency declaration and delay this election. He needs to work with local elections officials around the state to make universal voting by mail a reality, not just this time around but for all of our elections going forward. If that means setting up a confrontation with the courts, federal authorities, or state legislative leaders, so be it. We are talking about saving people’s lives and containing a disease that has more or less shut down the entire country. That is worth the fallout of an unfavorable court ruling. It’s even worth the governor and other state officials openly flouting such a ruling if it’s the right thing to do.
If Evers can’t find his spine this week, he will find it even harder to lead in the remainder of his term. Yes, Wisconsin’s elected Republicans are vile and have reliably failed to do the right thing. But we didn’t elect Evers simply to blame Republicans and act helpless. In point of fact, we, Wisconsin voters, actually elected Evers, and did not elect the Republican majority. There is still time to take action, save lives, and preserve a shred of legitimacy in our spring election.