Power plays in 2 states show how democ­racy can die

The Idaho Statesman - - News - BY AMANDA ERICK­SON

A month ago Wis­con­sin vot­ers elected a Demo­cratic gov­er­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral.

That didn’t sit well with the state’s Repub­li­cans, who con­trol the heav­i­lyger­ry­man­dered leg­is­la­ture. So they came up with a new plan this week: They passed a se­ries of bills to limit the power of the ex­ec­u­tive branch. The mea­sures stripped away the gov­er­nor’s power to ad­dress gun con­trol, eco­nomic devel­op­ment, the Af­ford­able Care Act and other state mat­ters.

Michi­gan Repub­li­cans are mak­ing sim­i­lar moves.

Repub­li­cans main­tain that they’re sim­ply try­ing to main­tain the bal­ance of power. But crit­ics see some­thing more in­sid­i­ous: an at­tempt to ham­string the demo­crat­i­cally elected lead­ers, thereby sub­vert­ing the will of the peo­ple. “It’s a power grab – clear and sim­ple,” Sen. Deb­bie Stabenow, DMich., said. “It’s lit­er­ally go­ing against the will of the pub­lic that voted for these of­fi­cials just 30 days ago.”

It’s also not en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar to those who study how democ­ra­cies fal­ter around the world.

It used to be that au­to­crats came to power through coups, or by en­act­ing states of emer­gency, ac­cord­ing to Aziz Huq, a Univer­sity of Chicago law pro­fes­sor and au­thor of the book “How to Save a Con­sti­tu­tional Democ­racy.”

Now, though, au­to­crats are much more likely to pre­tend to op­er­ate within the demo­cratic sys­tem. Rather than seiz­ing power, he said, many times lead­ers will keep the trap­pings of a re­pub­lic, while in­cre­men­tally elim­i­nat­ing the in­sti­tu­tions that en­able com­pe­ti­tion. It’s “dis­man­tling of democ­racy from the in­side,” Huq said.

This is ef­fec­tive for sev­eral rea­sons. It’s much harder for ac­tivists to mo­bi­lize sup­port­ers and stage protests when democ­racy dis­ap­pears in drips. When any one shift is small, it’s hard to get peo­ple riled up and on the streets. By the time peo­ple are en­gaged, it’s of­ten too late. And in­ter­na­tional groups and coali­tions like the Euro­pean Union are of­ten re­luc­tant to call out coun­tries which are mostly demo­cratic, for fear of alien­at­ing the ex­ec­u­tive al­to­gether. Some­times, lead­ers cal­cu­late that it’s bet­ter to have an im­per­fect coun­try op­er­at­ing within a sys­tem, par­tic­i­pat­ing in some of the in­sti­tu­tions, than one to­tally out­side the sys­tem.

Huq said he be­gan see­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­ans adopt this tech­nique in earnest in the 2000s. Lead­ers learn from each other, he said. So over two decades, this ap­proach hop­scotched from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bo­livia; and from Rus­sia to Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Strate­gies for creat­ing au­toc­racy don’t al­ways ex­ist, they’re in­vented, Huq said. “And once they’re in­vented they spread.”

In Venezuela, for ex­am­ple, Hugo Chávez’s party lost a se­ries of lo­cal elec­tions. In re­sponse, Chavez stripped those elected of­fi­cials of power by creat­ing al­ter­nate gov­ern­ing units. So even though the elected of­fi­cials were seated, they no longer had any kind of mean­ing­ful au­thor­ity. Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin did some­thing sim­i­lar with gov­er­nor­ship when his party started to lose, Huq said.

Other schol­ars have charted a sim­i­lar trend. In “How Democ­ra­cies Die,” po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Daniel Zi­blatt and Steven Levin­sky show the democ­ra­cies are of­ten killed by lead­ers who use the law against it­self. Their work shows that “con­sti­tu­tions break when ill-mo­ti­vated lead­ers de­lib­er­ately ex­pose their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties,” the New York Times wrote.

Huq is not com­par­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in Wis­con­sin to Venezuela or Rus­sia. But he does cau­tion that the Repub­li­can ma­neu­vers weaken the abil­ity of our democ­racy to func­tion. It could be the start, he ar­gues, of a wor­ry­ing trend.

“Chang­ing the rules of the game after you’ve lost one round is a way of show­ing you’re skep­ti­cal of the demo­cratic game,” Huq said. And it’s hard to have a func­tional democ­racy when “one party just doesn’t be­lieve in democ­racy un­less they win,” he said.

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