To undo the right’s power grabs, Democrats and the left need to stop treating the GOP as a worthy opposition.
The greatest surprise imaginable in the November 3 election would be for Republicans to lose their majorities in one or both houses of the Wisconsin State Legislature. And yes, I do mean that it would be an even greater surprise than Joe Biden winning the state’s electoral votes. The Wisconsin GOP used the 2011 redistricting process to draw itself extremely favorable maps, using ever more sophisticated software and data to enhance the grand American tradition of packing and cracking. It would take quite a push for Wisconsinites to break arguably the mightiest gerrymander in the United States: It’s set up such that Republicans can hold legislative majorities even if Democrats get the majority of the votes in legislative races. That said, Republicans are at least talking as if they’re afraid of losing some ground.
Whatever emerges from this election’s many layers of dread, Democrats and leftists need to cohere around the message that Republican power, especially in Wisconsin, is illegitimate. Whether Democrats gain power or remain in the minority, this central fact needs to infuse everything they say and do. It is a necessary response to a sputtering political system and to the insatiable power-lust of the right, problems that won’t go away with Donald Trump and may even get worse in his wake. We need to push beyond electoralism and our reliance on the Democratic Party itself, keeping in mind that Democrats have often failed Wisconsinites too. We must simultaneously embrace the imperative of utterly dismantling the Republican Party, a uniquely dangerous force on the face of the earth. The GOP was born here and we should be proud to make sure it ends here.
In the last four years, ordinary Wisconsinites have fought the battles that elected Democratic officials have lost. Tens of thousands of residents have taken to the streets around the state to demand an end to police brutality through the defunding of local police departments, or through more moderate reform measures. County supervisors of all political stripes—who do not run on a party ticket—have organized to call for an end to gerrymandering, and they’ve done so with the support of 72 percent of Wisconsin voters.
And in the face of Act 10, former Governor Scott Walker’s bill that stripped public sector workers of the right to collectively bargain with their employers, Wisconsin workers continue to fight for fair wages and dignity on the job: across the state, workers have pushed for hazard pay, PPE, and sick leave amid the pandemic. At UW Hospital, about 2,500 nurses who lost their union representation after the passage of Act 10 are pushing for the hospital to recognize their union anew.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s state government has stalled out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans, with a legislative majority and willing accomplices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, have blocked most of Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ executive actions, and refused to hold votes or even floor debates on Democrats’ ideas for legislation. Predictably, the state has experienced a hellish spike of new cases and deaths. Democrats, in turn, have thrown their hands up in frustration, stymied. But elected Dems must recognize the illegitimacy of their Republican counterparts, who secure and defend their power through the undemocratic means of voter suppression and gerrymandering.
This needs to be a daily theme in the narrative from both Democrats and groups farther to the left: Reminding people that the very fact of Republican rule is a violation of their most basic rights. The message shouldn’t be, “Let’s find common ground.” It should be, “Who let you in here?” Because it wasn’t a majority of Wisconsin voters, and very likely won’t be when the ballots from Tuesday’s election are all counted.
After months of legislative inaction on a pandemic that’s only getting worse, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has voiced support last week for new COVID relief measures. The face of Wisconsin’s spring 2020 plague election probably wouldn’t bother unless he perceived some political benefit there, or feared that his cynical dallying on this lethal crisis will finally come back on him. Vos has also downplayed the possibility that Republicans could expand their majorities into veto-proof supermajorities, and he’s been throwing tantrums about his own race against challenger Joel Jacobsen.
Vos himself will probably be fine, but it’s satisfying to watch the most powerful and most contemptible man in Wisconsin politics squirm. At the same time, Republicans continue to mislead the public and try to evade accountability: Vos and Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, have claimed that Evers failed to spend $75 million allocated in the one pandemic relief bill they’ve passed. As a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story explains, it’s more complicated than that. The bill provided a short time window for using the money, and its language explicitly requires the JFC to approve any expenditures. Had Evers sought to use it, what are the odds that it would have triggered another futile, petulant round of power struggles? The Evers administration does bear some of the blame for the state’s inadequate COVID response, but the legislature holds the pursestrings and will never really take responsibility for helping Wisconsinites through this horrific ordeal.
Of course, we can’t expect Democrats in the legislature to carry out the wholesale dismantling of the other side, or to undo 10 years of damage in one session. Using state power to dissolve a whole political party would set an unsavory precedent, so we should pursue the demolition of the GOP through grassroots opposition and direct action. We shouldn’t seek one-party rule, either—the Democratic Party itself should splinter into multiple smaller, more coherent parties, and people who don’t feel represented by those parties should be free to form others of whatever stripe they see fit. But we do need to show that there are consequences for openly sabotaging our already very flawed political system, and the ultimate consequence should be the institutional death of the organizations carrying it out. The public, not the Democratic Party, should lead that effort, applying fierce pressure until the GOP dissolves and surrenders its remaining assets—ideally to be used for COVID relief, given Republicans’ dangerous habit of holding mask-optional rallies.
What Democrats can do, with or without majorities, is begin acting like a real opposition. They can take everyday, procedural actions that undermine Republicans’ power and deny them credibility. No more collaborating with Republicans on new bills that criminalize protest. No more signing on to sham bipartisan gestures, like the racial equity task force Vos formed after the Legislature refused to even debate police-reform legislation. It’s an absolute disgrace that anyone from the opposition, including Madison’s own Sheila Stubbs, even bothered to take part in this task force, which is clearly meant to serve as a feather in Vos’ cap and drain away energy from substantive policymaking and debate. If you’re going to participate in something like that, at least make them give you something for it. Anything. Just stop capitulating all the damn time. Stop pretending that the GOP is anything other than a terroristic cult.
If Republicans still hold legislative majorities, stubborn and obstructive behavior from Democrats will deepen our much-lamented “partisan gridlock,” but who cares if it prevents Republicans from doing more harm? When Republicans lost the Governor’s race in 2018, they rammed a bunch of bills through the legislature that attempted to reduce the Governor’s and Attorney General’s powers and create a sort of shadow executive branch within the legislature. Democrats should set up a shadow legislature, but one that enriches the political process rather than perverting it. The statewide party and county Democratic organizations can appoint one volunteer for each Republican-held Senate and Assembly seat to constantly counter-message. These counter-legislators should be constantly communicating about how a different representative would be voting, crafting legislation, and addressing constituent concerns.
Even in legislative districts where the Democratic Party doesn’t hold power, it can essentially pivot to behaving like a community-service organization, rather than just raising money and running election cycles. Find ways to connect constituents around the state, even in legitimately deep-red districts, with the resources and information they need. Stick up for people the state government ignores, in every district. Keep the opposition present and vocal, in every district. Take cues from the mutual-aid work that unions and radical-left organizations have been doing for ages. This will also help the party develop new candidates in loyally Republican districts and lay some groundwork for flipping at least some of them. Treat democracy like a continuous process of caring for people, rather than a cyclical, set-it-and-forget-it affair, and maybe we can keep it.
On the off-chance that Democrats do gain control of the legislature in this election, their first priorities must be swift action on direct COVID relief, followed by the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Not only that, they should launch extensive investigations of the secretive 2011 redistricting process, voter suppression, the passage of Act 10, the corruption of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the flimsy Foxconn deal, the expensive scuttling of high-speed rail networks, and other acts of blatant political malfeasance. We need an accounting of the massive slow-motion scandal that the entire last decade in Wisconsin politics has been.
A Democratic majority’s actual policy agenda should of course include a boatload of repeals, but should go far beyond that to make historic investments in education, healthcare, and environmental protection. As former State Senate candidate Nada Elmikashfi points out in her latest Isthmus column, the Democratic Party only helps the far right when it “chooses moderate incrementalism over bold progressive policies that would alter the lives of so many across Wisconsin and this country.” Focusing on work that materially improves people’s lives will also help Wisconsin politics move past the tiresome construct of “urban vs. rural.”
The truth is that rural and urban areas are interdependent, and share a lot of problems in common. Rural Wisconsinites have too much nitrate and cow shit in their drinking water; urban Wisconsinites have too much lead in their drinking water. The state’s funding formula for schools isn’t great for growing urban districts or for rural ones that are watching their enrollments shrink. Massive investments in publicly owned broadband infrastructure would benefit rural regions that have never had high-speed internet service, and would be welcome in more populated areas where people are fed up with ISP monopolies. Nearly every area of the state is in dire need of expanded mental-health and substance-use resources. Communities across the state also deserve a chance to find their own solutions for specific local problems, which is why Wisconsinites from all walks of life should work together to undo the GOP’s crackdown on local control.
Progress on these issues would build real legitimacy, and would make it harder for the Wisconsin right to play the same old resentment politics. But we can’t get there if we’re playing nice with fascists. We can’t cling to the fantasy of “bipartisanship,” which in this day and age has become a comical euphemism for Democrats capitulating to Republicans. Moderate Democrats also need to lose their appetite for punching left. I get it if younger, more strident lefties rub you the wrong way: They often reject the typical dues-paying career paths of mainstream politics, and they’re willing to use swear words openly rather than muttering them on a hot mic. Like it or don’t, but we need to encourage their initiative and their knack for getting people off the political sidelines.
Even as our political climate grows more toxic and the very concept of liberal democracy seems increasingly fragile, Democrats have tended to cling to the notion that we have a functioning political system in which both parties can co-exist and bargain in good faith if only everyone plays by the rules. Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have told us multiple times during this election cycle that America needs the Republican Party. Biden, apparently forgetting his own tenure as Vice President, insists that Republicans will negotiate with him. What this mindset gets us is an opposition that is strategically feeble and a Democratic policy platform that, while less likely to bring about full-on authoritarianism and devastating climate catastrophe, does not inspire people to do anything except check out from the political process.
It’s impossible to conduct a fair game when your opponent is planting land mines all over the field. It’s impossible to fix the intolerable by coddling it with tolerance. Republicans have little interest in the consent of the governed. Their long-term, savvy cultivation of power in state legislatures, which enabled a wave of aggressive gerrymanders, was a response to demographic and social changes that make it increasingly hard for Republicans to win power honestly in robust elections. They rig the maps, suppress the vote through voter ID laws, whittle down early-voting time, sow confusion about largely made-up voter fraud, use the courts to meddle with mail-in voting. They forced Wisconsinites to vote in-person during a pandemic. They passed the 2018 lame duck laws to hoard power, in direct defiance of the will of a majority of Wisconsin voters. During the Walker years, it got harder to vote and easier to dump money into political races. The Republican Party isn’t a legitimate political party, because it doesn’t want to be one.
Like most everything Wisconsin Republicans do, this has to be understood in a national context, as part of a broader strategy. And during this election cycle, Republicans’ opposition to voting itself has become as naked and undeniable as ever, with Republicans across the country setting up practical barriers, and President Donald Trump frequently trying to cast doubt on the credibility and legitimacy of the election. The right wing of the political establishment has deputized the crazy armed fringes, as it always does under fascist regimes. It doesn’t make sense to pretend we still live in a functioning democracy when one party is so clearly determined to play raw power politics that disregard public opinion and human well-being. It is not in the nature of fascists to share power. If we want to have a free society of any kind, we have to grapple with the necessary ugliness of destroying the American right as we know it.
People have the right to hold abhorrent, deluded political beliefs, form parties, run candidates, and all that, but they’re not entitled to enact policies that stem from those beliefs. We have to take away the apparatus that gives them that power, which includes not just the GOP itself but a multitude of related organizations, including Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Sure, even if the GOP collapses there will still be right-wing political parties and people expressing various forms of cultish nonsense, but we need to make sure they can’t inflict their beliefs upon others at the expense of human rights. Let them live in a weird sort of exile, in a society that someday becomes kind enough and wise enough to render them irrelevant. It’s much more generous than what they have in store for the rest of us.