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Truth or Both Sides Do It: You Can Choose Only One


The blatantly anti-democratic actions of Republican legislators in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin present a test for the media:

Given all this, how should a scrupulously objective mainstream media characterize the North Carolina GOP? As a party that has been accused of using disingenuous concerns about voter fraud as an excuse to disenfranchise minority voters (but which strenuously denies those aspersions) — or as a party that indisputably uses disingenuous concerns about voter fraud as an excuse to disenfranchise minority voters? Or, more broadly, as one of two equally legitimate political parties in North Carolina — or as the one party in that state that is demonstrably uncommitted to democratic governance?

For that matter, how should such an objective media describe a national GOP that hasn’t seen fit to condemn any of its North Carolina branch’s activities? What about a national GOP that has also spent the past few days abetting anti-majoritarian power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan?

In both of those states, Republicans lost the offices of governor and attorney general last month, but retained control of the state legislature, thanks to district maps they had gerrymandered. Now, in lame-duck sessions, said GOP state legislators have attempted to strip various powers from their states’ incoming Democratic officials (including the authority to tighten campaign-finance laws, roll back voter-ID laws, and implement nonpartisan redistricting) and transfer them to the state legislature or to other bodies that Republicans control.

In Wisconsin, Republicans have defended their usurpation of power in plainly anti-democratic terms. Assembly speaker Robin Vos argued that if the legislature did not deny the popularly elected governor the full authorities of his office, then “we 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.” State Senate speaker Scott Fitzgerald agreed that elections must not be allowed to negate conservative policy goals, saying, “Law written by the legislature and passed by a governor should not be erased based on the political maneuvering of an incoming administration. We must make sure that Wisconsin’s business environment continues to thrive.”

Still, one cannot fully appreciate the anti-democratic nature of the Wisconsin GOP’s gambit without understanding that is has already immunized its state legislative majority against popular rebuke. On November 6, incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers defeated Scott Walker by one percent, but won a majority of votes in only 36 of 99 Assembly districts — the same number of districts that Democratic Assembly candidates won, despite collectively claiming a far higher share of the popular vote than their Republican counterparts. The GOP’s position is, thus, that the branch of government that is controlled by a party that did not receive the most votes should enjoy supremacy over the branch of government controlled by a party that did — because otherwise, Wisconsin will enact policies that Republicans do not like (or, more precisely, that Republican donors do not like — among other things, the state legislature will prevent the incoming attorney general from withdrawing Wisconsin from a lawsuit aimed at eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with preexisting conditions, a goal that most Republican voters do not support).

One might think, then, that (putatively) objective reporting on partisan fighting in Wisconsin would note the state legislature’s relative lack of popular legitimacy. One would be wrong: In two articles on the extraordinary session in Wisconsin — titled “Stung by Election Losses, Republicans in the States Seek a Way to Neutralize Democrats,” and “Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly ‘Stand Like Bedrock’ in the Face of Democratic Wins” — the New York Times never once used the word “gerrymandering,” nor did it give readers any indication that the fight between the incoming governor and the GOP legislature was, in large part, a fight over whether more authority should be concentrated in an anti-majoritarian body, which gives dramatically more weight to the votes of white Wisconsinites than black ones.

Taken in isolation, this oversight might not qualify as troubling. But, as indicated above, the Times’ failure to note the anti-democratic nature of the Wisconsin GOP’s position reflects a broader problem: One of America’s two major parties is steadily abandoning its commitment to the most basic norms of liberal democracy — and the mainstream media is obscuring that reality because it refuses to abandon the norms of “view-from-nowhere” journalism.

The Republican Party’s recent actions in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin are not aberrations. For years if not decades, the GOP has been undermining both the formal institutions of democracy (through voter suppression, felon disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering), and eroding the substance of self-government (by campaigning on a combination of appeals to cultural resentment that have no policy content, and flatly dishonest descriptions of its fiscal priorities). By insisting that their tax cuts for the wealthy would not cut taxes on the wealthy — and that their plans to weaken protections for people with preexisting conditions would not weaken protections for people with preexisting conditions — Republicans have confirmed that they understand their ideological goals are not democratically viable. And by making voter suppression a top legislative priority in (virtually) every state in which they hold power, Republicans have signaled that that they believe that their party would not be politically viable in an America governed by popular sovereignty. The events of the past few days have only made these realities a bit more conspicuous.

But the nonpartisan institutions that fancy themselves members of “the Fourth Estate” have, up to this point, refused to describe the modern Republican Party’s relationship to democracy in forthright terms. Still beholden to journalistic conventions established in a less polarized era — when the ambition to deliver news to Democrats and Republicans alike was more plausible and less ethically fraught — America’s leading newspapers and network news broadcasts have spent much of the Trump era straining to balance out the biases of objective reality. In some instances, this has involved bestowing a bizarre degree of editorial attention on the excesses of the campus left and marginal anarchist activists; in others, it’s involved drawing unwarranted distinctions between the illiberalism of Donald Trump and that of the broader GOP.

The early returns are not great.

I think it’s worth quoting two comments from djw that illustrate the extremity of the filibuster in Wisconsin, Remember, this is in the context of a national Democratic wave election:

The election turned out 63-36, so they’d need to flip 14 seats. A quick glance at the results shows the closest R wins were by 2, 3, 4, 4, 6, 8, 8, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 11. The impressiveness of the gerrymander is more striking when you look the other direction. A Democrat pulled off an upset and won a seat by 1. The second-closest Democratic victory was by 12, the 3rd closest, 20.

This election was precisely the scenario the gerrymander was built for, and it worked exactly as designed. If a bigger D wave occurred, Evers wins by high single digits, Rs still looking at a 15-20 seat lead, rather than 27.

To say “if you don’t like it, vote them out” is completely hollow — the Republican majority is effectively bulletproof. The only chance to restore democracy in Wisconsin for a while is for Democrats to get a majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

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