A Case Study

Wisconsin is currently providing us with a lesson about the state of American democracy.

It isn’t just the arrogance of Republicans who are threatening to overturn the expressed will of the voters with a trumped-up impeachment of a state supreme court judge; the state is a case study for Democrats elsewhere whose voters face similarly manufactured limits on their ability to win elections.

Last December, just after the midterms, the Guardian ran a report on how Democrats had managed to fight back in what the article called “the nation’s most gerrymandered state.”

Ben Wikler spent so much time poring over polls ahead of the midterm elections that it eventually became too much to bear.

“I was throwing up with anxiety,” Wikler, the chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic party, confessed to the Guardian.

It wasn’t merely out of concern, common to Democrats nationwide in the run-up to the early November vote, that voters were set to give their candidates the traditional drubbing of the party in power, powered by Joe Biden’s unpopularity or the wobbly state of the economy.

Rather, Wikler feared that in Wisconsin his party was on the brink of something worse: permanent minority status in a state that is crucial to any presidential candidate’s path to the White House.

What the party faced in Wisconsin was dire: if Democratic Governor Tony Evers lost re-election, or if the state’s GOP achieved supermajority control of Wisconsin’s legislature, the GOP could have ensured that its electoral college votes never helped a Democrat win the White House.

As Wikler said, Wisconsin is “a state where Republicans have tried to engineer things to make it voter-proof.”

According to several studies, Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country, and the fourth most difficult state in which to cast a ballot. It also has laws that make it practically impossible to conduct voter registration drives.

But Wisconsin’s Republicans are looking to tighten access to polling places further, and passed a host of measures to do so, all of which fell to Evers’s veto pen. With a supermajority in the legislature, they would have been able to override his vetoes. In a speech to supporters, Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor, made it plain that if he was elected, the GOP “will never lose another election” in the state.

Amazingly, despite being faced with enormous structural barriers,  Evers was re-elected, and Wisconsin Democrats narrowly managed to keep Republicans from a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. Democrats’ success at standing their ground in Wisconsin was one of the most pleasant surprises the party experienced in the midterms.

What accounted for Evers’ robust win?

The fact that statewide races can’t be gerrymandered is obviously key. And according to various news sources, Evers had a clear advantage over Michels among those age 18 to 44 years old, an age cohort that made up more than a third of voters in Wisconsin.

Evers also had stronger support for the issues he ran on than Michels did.

The AP VoteCast survey showed the most important issue facing the country for Wisconsin voters was overwhelmingly the economy and jobs. However, Evers focused much of his campaign on abortion, which was only slightly more important to voters than the issue of crime, something Michels made a prominent theme of his candidacy.

Voters who cared most about the economy split their votes between the parties–but Wisconsin voters who said the abortion issue was very important to them were lopsidedly pro-choice. Evers attributed the strength of his win to that issue.

There is a lesson here for Indiana in next year’s statewide elections.

As with Wisconsin, Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering will be irrelevant in the upcoming statewide races. And–mirroring the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest–the Hoosier electorate cares about economic and public safety issues, but is divided on which party is best able to address those issues.

As in Wisconsin, however, Hoosiers who care about reproductive rights are lopsidedly pro-choice.

All but one of the five Republicans running for Governor are running ads professing their “pro-life” and “Christian faith” credentials. The already-endorsed Republican Senate candidate (Indiana’s male version of Margery Taylor Green) is a flat-out culture warrior who supports a ban on abortion with no exceptions, along with a multitude of other far-Right positions. (He recently called President Biden the “most corrupt person to ever occupy the White House.”  No kidding.)

I will grant that Indiana’s state Democratic party structure ranks somewhere between weak and “where the hell are you?” but the party has lucked out with strong and appealing statewide candidates–Jennifer McCormick for Governor and Marc Carmichael for U.S. Senate. Both  are on the right side of the issues Hoosier voters care about, and–if adequately funded– both can win next November.

We can learn from Wisconsin.


From Your Mouth To God’s Ears…

My grandmother had a favorite response whenever one of us made a rosy prediction. That phrase– “From your mouth to God’s ears!”–was her way of expressing hope that the prediction would come true.

I had a very similar reaction to a column by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post. Sargent asserted that a MAGA “doom loop” would defeat Trump and the GOP next year–an outcome I devoutly hope to see. His thesis is as follows: Republicans continue to defend and embrace Trump’s authoritarianism. That backfired when voters responded by defeating the predicted Red wave in the 2022 midterms and continuing to defeat Republican candidates in multiple ensuing special elections.
 Subsequently–as Sargent accurately reports–rather than learning the rather obvious lesson from those defeats, Republicans have dug in. They’re going even further Right, responding to electoral losses “with even more flagrantly anti-democratic maneuvers all around the country.”

The pattern is becoming clear: Even as voters are mobilizing to protect democracy at the ballot box, Republicans are redoubling their commitment to the former president’s anti-majoritarian mode of politics. And this, in turn, is motivating voters even more.
Call it the “MAGA doom loop.” It’s playing out in state after state.

Sargent supports his thesis by surveying the disarray and infighting in several state-level Republican parties–notably, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin (where the GOP is threatening a bizarre, anti-democratic response to the electoral loss of a state supreme court seat.)

As Sargent predicts about Wisconsin,

Democrats will surely be able to use those MAGA-approved tactics to mobilize voters against Trump and Republicans in 2024. “The threat to overturn an election through impeachment pushes MAGA attacks on democracy to the top of voters’ minds,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler told me.

He also reminded readers of the recent shenanigans in Ohio, where Republicans tried to  raise the threshold for amending the state constitution to 60 percent of votes cast, in order to head off an almost-certain victory for reproductive rights in an upcoming referendum. Despite scheduling the vote on this single, arguably technical issue for August, turnout was robust, and the change was defeated by a crushing 14-points.

Research confirms that Issues become salient for voters when elites talk about those issues a lot, and in the U.S., concerns about democracy have increasingly taken center stage. A newsletter I subscribe to recently and helpfully included a partial list of current GOP threats to democracy:

In May, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a measure that will create a commission that can punish and remove prosecutors, saying it will curb “far-left prosecutors.” That includes a certain prosecutor pursuing the case against former President Donald Trump.

In April, Iowa’s Republican-led legislature introduced a bill that restricted information the state auditor—the only Democratic Statewide office holder—could access. “Let’s be clear about this, this is the destruction of democratic norms,” State Auditor Rob Sand said.

Immediately after last year’s nonpartisan Ohio State Board of Education election created a majority of members aligned with the Democratic party, conservative legislators moved to transfer the body’s power to a new department under the governor’s authority. While the bill failed during that year’s session, a similar bill passed in the Senate in January of this year and was introduced into the House in March (it’s currently in committee).

In 2021, Republicans in Arizona, using the state budget, stripped the Arizona Secretary of State—a Democrat–of the right to defend the state’s election laws in court—handing it over to the attorney general who happens to have been—you guessed it—a Republican. Any pretense that it was done as a move to strengthen some legal principle was undermined by the fact they intended the move to expire simultaneously with the end of the term of the secretary of state. Taking aim at secretaries of state is no accident, as these officers have authority over how elections are conducted. Legislators similarly trimmed the power of secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas. In fact, Republicans have moved to take control over the election process in at least eight states.

In recent years, after Democrats were elected to statewide offices in North Carolina , Wisconsin, and Michigan, Republican-led legislatures and governors moved to severely weaken their powers.

This doesn’t even begin to address the gerrymandering and the changing of rules over the last decade or so to make voting harder, more complicated, and less likely, especially among people of color, including restrictive voter ID laws and aggressive voter purges.

The “chattering classes” tell us that democracy is on the ballot in 2024. They’re correct–it is. 

I just hope Sargent’s “doom loop” thesis proves to be equally correct…..


How Has It Come To This?

I’ve posted a lot about electoral structures that are currently enabling a distinct minority of Americans to govern the rest of us. One of those systematic distortions–gerrymandering–has been enabled by a judiciary unwilling to say what we all can see: that the practice is contrary to “one person, one vote” and thus the Constitution.

What’s relatively new is the willingness of the GOP to publicly defend its attacks on democracy.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have benefitted from a combination of extreme gerrymandering and the political complicity of a state Supreme Court dominated by Rightwing judges. A liberal judge just won a seat on that body (by a surprisingly large margin in a state where close elections have been the norm), and Republicans threatened to impeach her–before she can participate in a single case.

As an essay in the Guardian explains:

In 2011, Republicans gerrymandered Wisconsin’s state legislature so badly that the party can win supermajorities despite losing the popular vote, as it did in 2018. Voters have fought back, and earlier this year they elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court, ushering in a new liberal majority which looked poised to finally overturn the gerrymander and bring democratic regime change to Madison.

But Wisconsin Republicans have no intention of seeing their undeserved power slip away. They’re proposing to impeach Protasiewicz on spurious charges before she has ruled on a single case, paralyzing the court and leaving the gerrymander intact.

When Trump argued that he was the real winner of the election because the votes of people living in Democratic-leaning urban areas were somehow fraudulent and should not count, he was repeating arguments that Wisconsin Republicans had already honed. The speaker of the state assembly, Robin Vos, has explained that the state’s gerrymander is fair because “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority”. Because Madison and Milwaukee are the parts of the state with the largest concentration of non-white voters, Vos has revealed what the Wisconsin gerrymander is really about: race.

No surprise there. The urban/rural divide isn’t just about racism, but rural racial grievance explains a lot.

Per Talking Points Memo, the election of a liberal judge to the state’s high court infuriated the beneficiaries of Wisconsin’s undemocratic gerrymandering.

For months, Republicans have been plotting how best to overturn her election, as two redistricting lawsuits were immediately filed at the state’s high court. In recent weeks, they’ve been coalescing around impeaching her, settling on the rationale that she called the state’s maps “rigged.” Notably, state Republicans have not brought the same ire to Justices Rebecca Bradley and Brian Hagedorn continuing to preside over abortion cases after likening abortion to the Holocaust and calling Planned Parenthood a “wicked organization,” respectively. 

The GOP is threatening to impeach both Protasiewicz, the judge, and Evers, the Democratic governor (since you can’t gerrymander statewide elections, voters were able to elect a liberal justice and a Democratic Governor). “The threat of actual democracy has convulsed the state government, while state Democrats express their outrage from their manufactured permanent minority.”

The use of skewed election systems to suppress the voices of minority voters is not new to the U.S. Wisconsin is only a blatant example.

Like their predecessors in other states, Wisconsin Republicans have been remarkably frank about their intention of ensuring that minorities stay in their place. When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers powered to victory in 2018 with massive wins in Madison and Milwaukee, the Republican legislature used a lame-duck session to strip him of much of his power. Not content with that, Evers’ Republican opponent in 2022, Tim Michels, promised that if he was elected then Republicans in Wisconsin “will never lose another election”.

Give him credit for transparency…

Republicans aren’t even pretending any more. It’s not just Wisconsin–but what happens in Wisconsin will be a test case, telling us whether these increasingly brazen attempts to secure minority rule will succeed.

The author of the Guardian essay–a British historian of the United States–notes that Wisconsin Republicans were among the most fervent backers of Trump’s undemocratic coup attempt, “but they needed no lessons from him in how to suppress the will of the people.” 

The Republican party’s belief in its own god-given right to rule – and that of its white, rural electorate – found its most dangerous expression in Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, but it long predated him. It will outlive him unless it is chastened by accountability and defeat at every turn. All eyes are now on Wisconsin and Janet Protasiewicz to see if it will be. 

If the Wisconsin GOP’s shameless abandonment of even a pretense of playing by the rules succeeds, we’re in for a world of hurt.


Judges And Politics

American government operates through Separation of Powers–what we all (hopefully) learned in school is the division of governance into three branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.

The basic idea was that the legislature would pass laws, the Executive branch would enforce them, and the Judicial branch would ensure that both the laws and the methods of their enforcement were consistent with the Constitution.

It has always been more complicated than that, of course, but it is important to keep that basic framework in mind–especially the fundamental role of the judiciary. That role requires that judges be insulated from partisan politics to the extent possible–that they be free to decide cases on their merits. They may err, but the goal is to put on the bench people who will put aside their personal policy preferences and “call ’em like they (honestly) see ’em.” Even today, most do.

Partisans have always grumbled about the judicial branch. When a court strikes down a politician’s pet legislation, accusations of “judicial activism” are never far behind, and efforts to place partisan ideologues on the bench are nothing new. 

What is new is the degree to which partisans and autocrats are acting to politicize and capture the courts–and not just in the U.S.

In Israel, Netanyahu’s far-right administration has stirred up a hornet’s nest by advancing measures that would allow that administration to control the courts. In Hungary, Victor Orban has tightened his control over that country’s Courts.There are other examples, and they all threaten democratic accountability.

America’s Founders tried to insulate the federal judiciary from political pressure  by granting judges lifetime tenure.(People didn’t live as long back them, and thoughtful critics suggest that terms limited to 18 or so years could achieve the same goal.) Many states also employ judicial selection systems meant to minimize the influence of partisanship and politics –requiring local bar associations to evaluate nominees, and creating bipartisan judicial nominating commissions. These mechanisms do not–cannot–completely remove partisan politics from the process, but they certainly help.

The effort to minimize partisanship on the bench is consistent with the Founders’ effort to create a judicial system meant to check misbehavior by the other two branches. Both the legislative and executive branches were designed to answer to the voters; the judiciary was intended to answer to the Constitution and to keep the other branches tethered to the rule of law. 

Over the years, political activists and ideologues have succeeded in eroding that fundamental distinction between the branches by the simple expedient of judicial elections. 

When judges are elected, partisanship is inevitable. The current campaign for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court should be sufficient to erase any doubt. The candidates  have made no bones about their contending political ideologies:

Officially, the race is nonpartisan, but one candidate is closely aligned with Republicans and the other with Democrats. The state parties and dark-money groups are the biggest spenders in the race.
Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz shored up Democratic support early in the race and easily rolled through Tuesday’s primary. She has said she backs abortion rights and condemned the election maps as “rigged.”

Conservatives were more bitterly divided, leading to a contentious fight for the other spot on the general election ballot. Emerging from the primary was Daniel Kelly, who was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2016 by Gov. Scott Walker (R). While campaigning, Kelly — who lost his seat in a 2020 election — has touted his rulings to allow concealed guns on city buses and end the coronavirus lockdown imposed by Gov. Tony Evers (D).

Given how blatantly all four of the run-off candidates trumpeted their very different approaches to the law, it was ironic that conservative Kelly accused liberal Protasiewicz’s of  promising to “set aside our law and our Constitution whenever they conflict with her personal values,” while characterizing  his own ideological preferences as fidelity to the Constitution.

Protasiewicz has rebuffed such attacks, saying she isn’t prejudging cases but letting voters know her values. She has criticized Kelly for his rulings and the endorsement he received in 2020 from Donald Trump.

My interpretations of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are more in line with those of Protasiewicz, so–from an “outcomes” standpoint– I found the runoff election results comforting: (Protasiewicz had 46 percent of the vote, Kelly had 24 percent, and Protasiewicz won areas of the state that are normally heavily Republican.) 

That said, given current levels of American civic literacy and Constitutional knowledge, voters aren’t deciding which judicial candidate’s approach to the law is most consistent with the Constitution. Instead, they are encouraging the judiciary to identify with partisans in the other two branches–to choose a side.

If you don’t think that’s dangerous, think about Orban and Netanyahu.


Another Assumption Bites The Dust

Sometimes, evidence proves seemingly logical arguments and analyses wrong.

I used to be a critic of prevailing wage laws–I was persuaded that such laws interfered with the market for construction services and added unnecessary costs to the public projects financed with taxpayer dollars.  I agreed with those who argued for repeal of such laws by contending that if we did away with prevailing wage,  taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars on public projects, because non-union contractors who didn’t pay prevailing wage would begin bidding on those jobs, generating more competition.

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support that theory, logical as it seemed.

In 2017, the Wisconsin state Legislature repealed prevailing wage. The state’s prevailing wage laws established local market-based minimum wages on the construction of schools, roads and other taxpayer-funded projects. It ensured that contractors were paying their workers fair market wages while also investing in training and apprenticeship programs that ensure the state has a stable supply of skilled craft workers to perform dangerous and demanding jobs.

Evidently, available peer-reviewed research as well as an analysis from Wisconsin’s non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau warned at the time that there was no conclusive evidence to support the claims being made by proponents of repeal. However, the state’s lawmakers ignored the nay-sayers, and  voted for repeal on a largely party line vote.

In early October of this year, Dr. Kevin Duncan, Professor of Economics at Colorado State University –Pueblo published a study of the results. It was the first study that examined how the claims made by Wisconsin repeal proponents stacked up against actual economic data. It wasn’t pretty.

Here are just a few of the topline findings.

Repeal has produced a 6% wage cut for skilled construction workers (about $3,000 per year, on average) and a 4% drop in construction health insurance coverage.
Repeal has led to a 60% increase in public projects going to out-of-state contractors.
Apprenticeship completion in Wisconsin is lagging neighboring states with prevailing wage laws.
Bid competition on Wisconsin Department of Transportation projects has decreased by 16%.
There have been no project savings. In fact, the per-mile cost of highway resurfacing projects has actually gone up slightly, as have “cost overruns” on road construction projects.

The obvious question is: why? And the not-so-obvious answer is a variant of what I used to tell my students about real-life policy: it’s more complicated than it looks!

The issue boils down to skill levels. When governments and companies invest in higher-skilled workers, the higher quality of the work, higher levels of productivity and better safety metrics combine to minimize waste and avoid costly mistakes.

More highly skilled workforces also experience lower employee turnover, which reduces costs to contractors.

But repeal imposes other costs that don’t show up in project bids. For example, when the wages are slashed, it means more workers are forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps and other government assistance programs to support their families. Those costs are borne by taxpayers…. And, when policy is distorted to advantage lower-skilled workers from out-of-town, it also means the benefits of job creation and consumer spending that would otherwise be stimulating Wisconsin’s economy are now going to other states.

Wisconsin was not the only state that repealed its prevailing wage law. Indiana did so several years ago, and West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky and Arkansas all did the same thing within the past decade.

Interestingly, according to the linked newspaper report, the Assistant Republican Leader in the Indiana House of Representatives (the story did not further identify him) “famously told a Wisconsin audience in 2017 that repeal ‘hasn’t saved us a penny.’ And study after study has shown him to be right.”

The Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that after repeal of the common wage, “Hoosiers working in the construction industry are earning less than they were before, with no meaningful cost savings for Indiana taxpayers.”

Consider this example number umpty-zillion that public policy should be based on evidence rather than ideology….