Much of the history of the modern Republican Party in Washington, from the “Gingrich Revolution” to President Trump, consists of repeated, successful attacks on the norms of American governance. That ethos has trickled down to Republicans across the country, who have taken the always fraught and divisive world of politics and made it a war by other means.
Take Wisconsin. Under Gov. Scott Walker, Republicans have worked hard to insulate themselves from electoral accountability, with aggressive redistricting to protect incumbent Republican lawmakers, an attack on the state’s independent ethics and elections agency, and a draconian voter identification law that depressed black turnout in the 2016 election and helped Donald Trump win the state—and the presidency with it.
Unfortunately for Walker, these moves weren’t enough to keep Democrats from overcoming a strong Republican advantage to win a vacant seat in the state Senate last month. And with additional vacancies in the legislature after two Republican lawmakers left to join his administration, Walker risks further losses to the state GOP’s position. Instead of taking that chance, the governor has simply refused to call the elections, postponing them until next year and ignoring a statute that calls for vacancies to be filled “as promptly as possible.” Walker’s decision has left tens of thousands of Wisconsinites without direct representation in the statehouse. There’s little doubt Walker would call the elections were he confident of Republican victory. He’s not, and so he’s opted for a power grab.
Even more egregious is the situation in Pennsylvania. In January, the state Supreme Court struck down the Pennsylvania congressional map, calling it an impermissible gerrymander that “clearly, plainly and palpably“ violates the state’s Constitution. The Court then ordered the legislature to draw a new map for Pennsylvania’s 18 House districts, which had previously been gerrymandered to produce an overwhelming Republican advantage in a state that regularly breaks for Democrats. On Monday, Justice Samuel Alito rejected Republican legislators’ emergency appeal to halt the decision.* But rather than face this reality, Pennsylvania Republicans have proposed an all-out war on the state judiciary. “The five Justices who signed this order that blatantly and clearly contradicts the plain language of the Pennsylvania Constitution, engaged in misbehavior in office,” reads a memo from state Rep. Cris Dush. “Each is guilty of an impeachable offense warranting removal from office and disqualification to hold any office or trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”
Dush is just one lawmaker, but the top Republicans in the state have also pledged to pursue impeachment. “We still do not believe that there was a violation of the state Constitution, that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can direct us to draw a new congressional map, or that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the authority to draw a new Congressional District Map under the Pennsylvania Constitution or United States Constitution,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai in a joint statement.
As Republicans in Pennsylvania contemplate an assault on the judiciary, Republicans in North Carolina are in the midst of one. In the last year, courts have overturned more than a dozen laws passed by the state’s Republican-led legislature, from harsh and restrictive voter ID laws aimed mostly at black voters to redistricting maps for House and state legislative elections that one federal judge called “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.”
Rather than live with these court decisions and end their attacks on fair elections, North Carolina Republicans have opted to change the courts themselves, instituting partisan judicial elections to hinder liberal jurists running in rural areas, eliminating judicial primaries to insulate incumbent conservatives who can rely on name recognition to win, and redrawing boundaries for judicial districts in a way that may reduce the number of black judges and increase GOP representation on the bench. Republicans have even reduced the size of the state Court of Appeals in order to keep Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, from replacing Republican appointed judges.
These efforts are emboldened and encouraged by the leaders of the Republican Party in Washington. Mitch McConnell’s tenure as Senate leader has been defined by procedural radicalism, from the unprecedented use of the filibuster to stymie Democrats under President Obama to his successful blockade of the Supreme Court, denying a nomination to the duly elected president. The broader disdain for political norms has its avatar in Donald Trump, who holds his personal interests above the rule of law.
American democracy is resilient. But it’s not unbreakable. And it needs committed elites in both political parties to keep it from shattering like glass. Right now, they are in worryingly short supply.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2018: This story originally misstated that the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Justice Samuel Alito rejected an appeal to halt the Pennsylvania decision.