Democratic systems vary, but they share certain foundational assumptions. The most important of those is the starting point: We The People are the “deciders.” Ultimate authority rests with the voters.
In democratic theory, candidates contend for support during election campaigns, voters cast their ballots, and the candidate who garners the most votes wins. (At least if there’s no Electoral College involved).
In order for this process to work, both winners and losers must respect the will of the people.
Losers may disagree with positions endorsed by the winning candidates, and as the “loyal opposition,” they may work in accordance with the rules to defeat the winners’ agenda, but democratic norms require that they acquiesce to the people’s choice.
When that doesn’t happen–when the losers disregard the rules and norms in order to frustrate the choices made by the electorate–governance can no longer be considered either legitimate or democratic. Political actors who accept authority when they win, but defy the settled norms of democratic behavior when they lose , undermine the public trust and make a mockery of the rule of law.
The visceral reaction to Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat reflected a widespread recognition that this was no ordinary political maneuver–it was the arrogant demonstration of a cheat that he would abide by the rules only when they favored him.
When Republicans in the North Carolina legislature stripped the incoming Democratic governor of powers the office had previously exercised–because they could–it was their middle-finger-to-democracy gesture.
That “in your face” rejection of democratic norms is spreading.
In a newsletter for the Boston Globe, Michael Cohen recently pointed out, “in a normal representative democracy, if you run for office and then lose you let the other party run things for a while. That doesn’t mean a political party can’t oppose those efforts, but it does mean that you have to respect the voters’ decisions.”
That isn’t what is happening in Wisconsin or Michigan.
In these two states, Republican gubernatorial candidates were defeated in this year’s midterm elections. Democrats also won both attorney general races. And now Republicans are refusing to accept the results.
Instead they are trying to use lame-duck sessions – before the Democrats are sworn into office – to weaken the power of the incoming Democrats and put in place policy changes that will benefit Republicans.
Let’s start with Wisconsin, where soon-to-be former governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature have spent the past eight years making a mockery of democracy in the state. Upon taking office they rammed through a highly controversial measure that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public sector unions. Then they re-wrote legislative maps to give themselves out-sized control of the state government. In the 2018 election, Democrats won 53 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for Republicans. Yet, because of gerrymandering, that translates into a 64-36 advantage for Republicans in the state assembly.
But apparently that’s not enough for Republicans. Now they are enacting legislation that would kneecap Democrats once they take office….
For Governor-elect Evers, Republicans would not only force him to enact work requirements for Medicaid, but would also require him to get the legislature’s permission before submitting any request to the federal government to change how federal programs are administered. In effect, Republicans would give themselves a veto over much of what Evers would try to accomplish as governor. Walker has stated publicly that he will sign the bills.
Republicans aren’t even being shy about their agenda. In Wisconsin, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scot Fitzgerald defended his party’s actions by saying, “I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”
He’s right. But of course Evers’s agenda is what Wisconsin voters chose. To put roadblocks in front of it is to, in effect, say to voters that their choices don’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a statement more contemptible in a democracy than a political leader telling a state’s voters, “only the views of the people who voted for me matter.” But that’s precisely what Fitzgerald and his Republican colleagues are doing.
Changing the rules after they’ve lost the game. Undoing the results of a democratic election because they lost.
This behavior is nothing less than an attack on America and its values.