Republicans in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are losing complete control over their respective state governments come January.
In all three states, the Republican legislature is laying down a flurry of bills in a last-ditch attempt to hamstring any sort of change. In North Carolina, they want to all but guarantee the GOP control over elections and redistricting. In Wisconsin and Michigan, they’re trying to strip incoming Democratic governors’ powers over appointments, limit election reform, and insert themselves into lawsuits, more or less sidelining Attorneys General.
These legislative shenanigans are corrupt, cynical, hypocritical, and anti-democratic. For example, Wisconsin Republicans are attempting to preserve the state’s Economic Development Corporation, long a patronage machine for the GOP, while Tony Evers, the governor-elect, wants to bring back the state’s Department of Commerce.
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Michigan Republicans, meanwhile, passed a bill earlier this year mandating an hourly wage increase and paid sick time in the state. Now they’re repealing the same law in the same session in which it was passed. That avoids a citizen referendum, which would have forced the legislature to implement the proposed changes. In all three states, legislators are rushing to claw back powers they happily allowed Republican governors to exercise.
The GOP legislators have hurried these bills through unaccountable lame-duck legislative sessions, with little time for review or debate, often directly flouting the will of voters, and with little regard for the democratic value of the peaceful transfer of power. Meaning, you don’t wreck the joint just to spite your successor. While none of these moves is without precedent, they are individually and collectively an abuse of power.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that these issues are arising in these particular states. All three have long had Republican parties with sharp elbows. And all three have sharp social divisions, between white rural and suburban districts and more diverse cities, old economies and new. Wisconsin Republicans, for example, are desperate to avoid being ruled by “liberal Madison,” the home of the University of Wisconsin and a rapidly-growing biotech industry. They don’t like Milwaukee either, center of the state’s Black and Hispanic communities. Michigan faces the same dynamic between its densely populated, racially diverse eastern region, and its thinner, paler western and northern regions. As for North Carolina, well, Jesse Helms’ former campaign lawyer was just denied a seat on a federal court for his involvement in racist campaign strategies and vote suppression. Does that tell you anything?
These divisions cause and fuel a common attitude among GOP leaders: the refusal to concede the legitimacy of their political opponents. Some Republicans believe that Democrats—which is to say, young, diverse, well-educated and liberal citizens—don’t deserve to run the government. They can’t see Democrats as equals, let alone leaders. It’s no wonder they embrace scorched-earth tactics when faced with turning over the keys to the capitol. It’s total war, with the goal being not just to defeat the enemy, but to break her ability to fight in the first place.
In the face of all this lunacy, I keep hearing calls from Christian and other religious leaders encouraging reconciliation via civility, “positive conversations,” or being “proudly purple churches.” As for me, I’m in the basement, rethinking the Calvinist doctrine of total human depravity.
I’ve said before that these calls to a higher politics are serious political mistakes. It can amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of fascism. Bad enough, but the cult of civility is also a categorical moral mistake, in the same way that Reinhold Niebuhr charged pacifists with error. It takes the personal, religious ideal of “perfect love” as a norm that can be applied on a social level. It cannot.
Not only is it not realistic to think that we can love our way out of our current political dead end, but it’s also true that religious norms simply don’t work in societies with secular assumptions. I’ve tracked both of these realities ad nauseam over the years. Political problems have political solutions, and Christians no longer have the cultural heft to enforce social norms. Pope Francis spoke to Congress a few years back. They ignored him.
What societies want and need, Niebuhr says, isn’t love. It’s justice. Societies inevitably work toward equity as an ethical ideal—stated values of love and civil discourse notwithstanding.
None of this is to suggest that being loving, kind and gentle isn’t a worthwhile goal. It is. It’s just not one that will change society. Because the actual cause of political division isn’t a lack of interpersonal niceties: it’s the social divisions and inequalities quickly hardening America’s heart. Find the justice, find the peace.
How? Greg Sargent has some useful suggestions in his new book An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy In An Age of Trumpian Disinformation And Thunderdome Politics. Americans should insist on the truth being told by their politicians and media, Sargent says. They should also support efforts to counteract gerrymandering, voter suppression, and asymmetrical hyperpartisanship by removing the legislative power to create them in the first place. Americans may not ever be able to love one another perfectly, but we can have equity in our political representation, which is like unto it. It’s also a far more practical goal to work toward.