If you need a reminder that the Republican party’s problem with democracy extends beyond the antics of Donald Trump, look no further than Wisconsin. A battle is under way there which began before the January 6 insurrection was even a twinkle in Trump’s eye, and which will do much to determine the future of democracy in America whether Trump ultimately answers for his crimes or not. It’s no exaggeration to say that Wisconsin and its state capitol, Madison, are now the front line of the battle to save American democracy.
In 2011, Republicans gerrymandered Wisconsin’s state legislature so badly that the party can win supermajorities despite losing the popular vote, as it did in 2018. Voters have fought back, and earlier this year they elected Janet Protasiewicz to the state supreme court, ushering in a new liberal majority which looked poised to finally overturn the gerrymander and bring democratic regime change to Madison.
But Wisconsin Republicans have no intention of seeing their undeserved power slip away. They’re proposing to impeach Protasiewicz on spurious charges before she has ruled on a single case, paralyzing the court and leaving the gerrymander intact.
When Trump argued that he was the real winner of the election because the votes of people living in Democratic-leaning urban areas were somehow fraudulent and should not count, he was repeating arguments that Wisconsin Republicans had already honed. The speaker of the state assembly, Robin Vos, has explained that the state’s gerrymander is fair because “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority”. Because Madison and Milwaukee are the parts of the state with the largest concentration of non-white voters, Vos has revealed what the Wisconsin gerrymander is really about: race.
There is a long history in the United States of skewed electoral systems being used to suppress the voices of minority voters, and Wisconsin’s is only the latest example. Like their predecessors in other states, Wisconsin Republicans have been remarkably frank about their intention of ensuring that minorities stay in their place. When Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers powered to victory in 2018 with massive wins in Madison and Milwaukee, the Republican legislature used a lame-duck session to strip him of much of his power. Not content with that, Evers’ Republican opponent in 2022, Tim Michels, promised that if he was elected then Republicans in Wisconsin “will never lose another election”.
The latest target of this raw, racist power politics is the Wisconsin’s electorate new choice for the state supreme court. Protasiewicz won by more than 10% on record turnout, which was spurred by widespread voter dissatisfaction with the fruits of Republican rule. In particular, voters oppose the state’s harsh anti-abortion law, which makes abortion illegal unless it is necessary to save the life of the mother, with no exceptions for other medical problems or rape. A majority of Wisconsinites wanted a liberal state supreme court which would overturn that law, and they voted accordingly.
By linking abortion rights to questions of democracy, Protasiewicz came up with a playbook that can be used across America to push back against attacks on basic constitutional rights, be they in the doctor’s office or the voting booth. That’s why Republicans are so scared of her and desperate to find a way to stop her from succeeding.
Republicans’ plan to impeach Protasiewicz is nakedly hypocritical: They argue that Protasiewicz, who received Democratic campaign donations, cannot give unbiased rulings in gerrymandering cases – despite the fact that numerous other Wisconsin state supreme court justices, including Republicans, have also received party donations and ruled on cases with political implications.
Their plan also bends democratic norms, in this case by impeaching Protasiewicz and then simply leaving her in limbo, legally unable to hear cases. Because the plan wouldn’t actually formally kick her from office, it denies the state’s Democratic governor the opportunity to replace her with another liberal. Democrats are fighting back, but their chances of success hinge on their ability to convince Republicans in the gerrymandered assembly to do the right thing.
As Wisconsin goes, so goes America. Although sometimes referred to as a “moderate” state, it is more accurate to view Wisconsin as one very conservative state and one very liberal state jammed together. The fact that it is narrowly divided between the two parties is precisely why Republicans have resorted to constitutional and political skullduggery to give themselves an unfair advantage.
The same is true of many other states, and indeed of America as a whole. What happens in Wisconsin is a crucial test case of whether the most brazen attempts to turn competitive elections into uncompetitive one-party control will fly.
This challenge will remain whether Trump goes to jail or not. Wisconsin Republicans were some of the most fervent backers of Trump’s own undemocratic actions, but they needed no lessons from him in how to suppress the will of the people. The Republican party’s belief in its own god-given right to rule – and that of its white, rural electorate – found its most dangerous expression in Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, but it long predated him. It will outlive him unless it is chastened by accountability and defeat at every turn. All eyes are now on Wisconsin and Janet Protasiewicz to see if it will be. Good luck, your honor.