Lately I worry that our political system is threatened. One of the basic ideas of our democracy, pushed especially by conservatives, has been that Americans at the local level should be able to control local issues. Of course this idea has limits. Local school districts should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, because the Constitution says that is illegal. State laws should not discriminate against women, because that is also illegal. But what about trying to deal with plastic shopping bags? Are communities allowed to require that local construction contracts include local workers?
Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed laws preventing communities from controlling these and many other issues as a way of preventing many policies they don’t like: adding gender identity to non-discrimination laws, setting higher minimum wages, restricting the height of cellphone towers. Later this month, a special session of the Texas legislature will consider proposals to block cities from regulating trees on private land and restricting cellphone use while driving. Iowa Republicans want to take away control from local water boards. Many states with Republican majorities are forbidding local control: Michigan, South Dakota, Ohio, New Hampshire, Idaho, and Arizona. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau counted 128 measures recently passed by the Republican legislature in Wisconsin that restricted local control. Twenty-five states have passed laws preventing localities from raising their minimum wages.
Republican legislatures have backed up these so-called “preemption laws” with a big stick. If a local government in Arizona is found to have acted against the wishes of the legislature, it could lose all of its state aid. Many states now have laws which personally punish local legislators for not obeying preemption rules.
Both parties have long traditions of abusing our political system for partisan ends. Gerrymandering election districts by creative redrawing of boundaries is a key example of parties subverting democracy. Republicans have gone further than ever before in abusing their power to redraw boundaries based on their dominance in state legislatures. In Pennsylvania in 2012, Republicans lost the popular vote, but won 13 of 18 House seats. Wisconsin’s gerrymandered districts will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, which threw out North Carolina Republicans’ efforts to concentrate minority voters in the fewest number of districts.
The Senate filibuster is another undemocratic method by which a minority tries to rule. Again, both parties have used the filibuster to stifle the majority, but Republicans took this tactic to unprecedented extremes to try to prevent President Obama from nominating judges. Eventually Republicans threatened to filibuster every judicial nomination made by Obama.
In recent years, Republicans have so distorted our government structures that our democracy is threatened. Republican Senators refused to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016. North Carolina Republicans are trying to remove normal powers of their Governor, a Democrat. And now Republican legislatures are forbidding voters in Democratic cities from controlling their local politics.
When Senator Joe McCarthy tried to use hysterical fears of communism to attack all liberals, he was following a playbook used by both Democrats and Republicans. When Richard Nixon tried to corrupt our governmental structures to elect and then protect himself, I didn’t think his dishonesty was especially Republican. But the current “anything we can get away with” method of governing appears to have become standard Republican practice.
Our political system is not perfect. Changes in its structure are certainly worth discussing, such as doing something about the Electoral College. But structural changes should come out of debates about principles of good governance.
For all my life, conservatives have argued for local control, for example when they wanted to preserve segregated schools, as opposed to “big government”. Republicans constantly quote Thomas Jefferson: “Government closest to the people governs best.” Reagan did it in 1967. The Oklahoma Republican Party has those words on its website. Chapters of College Republicans use it as part of a “Republican Oath”. But when local government does something that Republicans don’t like, they forbid it.
Such principles appear to be merely window-dressing, designed to distract us from Republican partisan efforts to invalidate legitimate election results which favored Democrats. Republicans are twisting our Constitution to create the “permanent majority” that they can’t win at the ballot box.
What will Republicans do next? And will enough Americans care as our institutions are subverted from within?
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 18, 2017