Tyranny of the Minority
Mother Jones|March/April 2021
Democrats may control Washington, but the fight for democracy is far from over.
By Ari Berman

In 2018, Democrats swept every statewide race in Wisconsin, ending nearly a decade of Republican rule. “The voters spoke,” Democrat Tony Evers said after defeating incumbent Gov. Scott Walker. “A change is coming, Wisconsin!”

Not so fast. A month later, the GOP-controlled legislature convened an unprecedented lame-duck session to strip the incoming governor of key administrative and appointment powers and shorten the early voting period to dampen future Democratic turnout. Though their opponents had won more votes, Republicans believed only they were entitled to exercise power. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said of the state’s two largest and most Democratic cities, home to 850,000 people, “we would have a clear majority.”

In fact, they still did. Even though Democrats won 54 percent of votes cast for the state Assembly, Republican control of the last redistricting process in 2011 allowed the gop to keep almost two-thirds of seats. The legislature set to work nullifying Evers’ agenda. Republicans refused to confirm members of his Cabinet and cut his budget for priorities like health care, schools, and roads. They thwarted his efforts to fight COVID-19, persuading the courts to block his stay-at-home order and his attempt to push back the state’s presidential primary.

Republicans had been preparing for this moment for years. Between gerrymandering and laws designed to reduce the influence of Democratic constituencies—by making it harder to vote, repealing limits on political giving, and stripping unions of collective bargaining rights—they had effectively made Wisconsin “a democracy-free zone,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Those efforts helped conservative candidates win a majority on the state Supreme Court, which has upheld nearly every move by the legislature to weaken Evers’ power, creating an almost-impenetrable antidemocracy feedback loop in a state that Joe Biden narrowly won.

“The way that Republican legislators have relentlessly sought to weaponize the courts and torpedo the governing power of Tony Evers is a preview of how Mitch McConnell and Republicans will treat Joe Biden,” says Wikler. “Democrats should prepare accordingly.”

The Wisconsin saga showed how much power Republicans can exert without popular support, and it’s about to be replicated on a much larger scale. The violent invasion of the Capitol on January 6 drew rebukes from many Republican lawmakers. But it reflected, in extreme form, something Republicans have long displayed: a disregard for the will of the majority. With Republicans shut out of the White House and congressional leadership, minority rule is likely to intensify over the next four years in ways not seen in modern times.

Biden won by far the most votes of any candidate in history and beat Donald Trump by one of the largest margins in recent decades. Yet he’ll be handcuffed from the start. Fifty Republican senators will be able to thwart most of his legislative agenda, even though Democratic senators represent 41 million more Americans. The Supreme Court is likely to block many of his executive actions, even though a majority of those justices were appointed by Republican presidents who came to office after losing the popular vote and were confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population. And more than 50 million Americans live in states like Wisconsin, where Republicans control the legislature despite getting fewer votes and will pass another round of gerrymandered maps and new restrictions on voting to entrench minority rule for the next decade.

This isn’t about which party wins elections, but whether democracy itself survives. Some anti-democratic measures were deliberately built into a system that was designed to benefit rich white men: The Senate was created to boost small conservative states and serve as a check on the more democratic House of Representatives, while the Electoral College prevented the direct election of the president and enhanced the power of slave states through the three-fifths clause. But these features have metastasized to a degree the Founding Fathers could have never anticipated, and in ways that threaten the very notion of representative government.

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