Clear and present danger

The assault on democracy doesn't begin or end with Trump

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Protesters enter the Senate Chamber. Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation's capital. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Protesters enter the Senate Chamber. Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation's capital. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When Law Forward  launched in October with the goal of reversing the right-wing assault on democracy, there was “skepticism about how real these threats to our democracy are,” says Jeffrey Mandell, one of the founding attorneys at Wisconsin’s new progressive, nonprofit law firm

Since then, a violent mob, incited by President Donald Trump, has rampaged through the U.S. Capitol. The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison is boarded up and protected by National Guard troops in anticipation of more violence. “The danger is real and present and all too clear,” says Mandell. “Even here in Wisconsin.”

The End Times atmosphere hanging over our state and our country in these waning days of the Trump administration didn’t arise overnight. It is the product of a toxic politics nurtured by Republicans who, for years, have cynically stoked bigotry, division and the paranoid fantasies of the fringiest elements of their base. At the same time, Republicans and their right-wing allies have been working to consolidate their power by undermining democracy and weakening the voices of the voters who might steer them back onto a steadier course.

Voter-suppression efforts and partisan gerrymandering don’t just deprive people of their voice in government; they have also directly contributed to the dangerous distortion of politics by the far right. Politicians don’t have to worry about the views of the majority of citizens when they can disenfranchise people of color, young people and low-income voters and then draw districts where only one party has a shot at being elected. 

As two former majority leaders of the Wisconsin State Senate, Republican Dale Schultz and Democrat Tim Cullen wrote in an oped several years ago in the Washington Post: “With party control pre-decided, most legislators care only about their primary elections. Everyone knows who’s going to win the general election. There’s much less incentive to reach bipartisan compromise.”

Schultz and Cullen lamented the demise of bipartisan governance after the Republicans’ secret partisan gerrymander of 2011. Among the casualties, they wrote, were “common-sense environmental protections, adequate funding for universities and roads, and tax rates that were sufficient to fund necessary services but not overly burdensome.”

Today, as we face mobs of angry Trump supporters stirred up by deliberate lies about election fraud, those concerns seem almost quaint. 

Wisconsin’s Republican members of Congress voted as a bloc against impeaching Donald Trump for his role in riling up the murderous mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol. They are trying to have it both ways — condemning the violence while continuing to give oxygen to crackpot conspiracy theories about a stolen election and rampant voter fraud. 

Inside our boarded-up state Capitol, Republican legislators are planning more hearings on nonexistent election fraud, which will serve the dual purpose of stroking the Trumpist base and providing an excuse for throwing out more ballots and erecting higher bars to voting for the people most likely to vote for Democrats. 

As Melanie Conklin reports, 15 Wisconsin Republican legislators sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking him not to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. 

And some GOP leaders who claim to be in favor of a peaceful transfer of power and against violent mobs are still stirring up the dangerous, dark forces that helped put Trump in power and are now out of control.

As Henry Redman reports, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.) appeared at a rally three days after the insurrection at the Capitol in which right-wing radio talker Vicki McKenna called for “war” on liberals and Democrats.

Now more than ever it’s time for a reality check on the off-the-rails politics of the Republican Party. 

That reality check starts with an end to partisan gerrymandering.

In Wisconsin, the new battle over our gerrymandered political map is heating up. Republicans are seeking to hold the advantage that allows them to keep control of both houses of the Legislature even when Democrats win statewide elections across the board.

Law Forward is involved in this fight, arguing before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday against a proposal by the right-wing Wisconsin Institute For Law & Liberty to fast-track legal disputes that arise over the next round of district maps to the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court.

A large majority of Wisconsin counties — 55 out of 72 — have passed referenda or had resolutions passed by their county boards calling on the Legislature to ban gerrymandering. That number — which represents more than 82% of Wisconsin citizens, mostly in Republican areas of the state — is likely to grow after more referenda are added to the ballot in the spring.

Meanwhile, the threat to our democracy is growing more apparent. 

Republicans need to grow a backbone and renounce Trump and his violent white supremacist supporters. They need to come home to reality where, as even Mitch McConnell pointed out on the Senate floor, the election was not stolen — it was not even close. 

But they need to do more than that. They need to stop attacking basic democratic institutions including voting, fair maps and the separation of powers. These are what Mandell calls “the soft connective tissue of our democracy.” 

“For more than 200 years this stuff was axiomatic,” Mandell said when he helped launch Law Forward to defend democracy. “We all had certain values and assumptions about how the political system works. Over the last 10-15 years, conservatives began to challenge that.” 

Those challenges reached their nadir with the devolution of the 2020 presidential election into mob violence. 

The Republicans are lost. They clearly need help. And the best way to begin helping them is by ending gerrymandering — an idea that has broad, bipartisan support in the general population (but not among Republican legislative leaders whose sole aim seems to be increasing their own power).

Restoring democracy and sanity to our state and our country starts with making our political leaders accountable to the people. They may not like it, but they need it. And so do we.

Editor’s note: This will be my last commentary for the Examiner for the next two months. I am taking an eight-week leave, from Jan. 15 to March 15, to work on a book project I have put on hold while immersed in our important work covering state politics and government. It’s a difficult time to step away, with our nation and our state in crisis. But I am very fortunate to have such talented colleagues and a generous and supportive employer. Deputy Editor Melanie Conklin will keep things going in my absence, while churning out deep reporting and analysis from the Capitol with her trademark flair. Catherine Capellaro, the arts editor for Isthmus and an accomplished artist and writer in her own right, has agreed to join the team during my absence and help with both editing and news coverage. My longtime former editor and friend Matthew Rothschild will be contributing his wise perspective in regular weekly commentaries. Erik Gunn, Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman will continue breaking news, digging up the truth and taking names. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.