Hardball partisan lawmaking: Is it a threat to democracy?

Why We Wrote This

North Carolina is locked in a battle over its political heart and soul. “It’s not just Democrats versus Republicans. It’s small ‘d’ democrats versus nondemocrats,” says a political scientist. “It’s bigger than party labels. It’s about the rules of the game.”

Robert Willett/The News & Observer/AP
Rep. David Lewis huddles with fellow House members and House Speaker Tim Moore prior to the afternoon session of the House, Sept. 11, 2019, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Historians say democracies rarely fail by force. Far more often it’s by “subversion by stealth” – the piecemeal dismantling of norms. The shape of U.S. democracy has become increasingly one-sided, with most states now either solidly blue or solidly red. Perhaps as a result, both sides increasingly feel the other is out to destroy them, as 6 out of 10 voters said in a recent poll.

But few have tested the tensile strength of democratic bounds more than North Carolina, where Republicans have sought to deprive the Democratic governor of his power – most recently last week, by staging an override vote of his budget veto while most Democrats were absent.

“American democracy ... is hard to kill, and there are a lot of forces working to stabilize and protect it, so we are not at the edge of a cliff,” says Steven Levitsky, co-author of “When Democracies Die.” “But the use of the letter of the law to clearly subvert its spirit, that’s what happens when politicians abandon restraint. North Carolina is not quite a microcosm, but is somewhat representative of that: a very polarized state in which the dominant party is beginning to lose its grip.”

Deb Butler yelled it over and over again, her jaw set as though in stone: “Mr. Speaker, we will not yield!”

Standing in a near-empty legislative chamber at 16 Jones Street in Raleigh, North Carolina, Ms. Butler, a Democratic legislator, rose in rage after watching Republicans taking advantage of a large number of absent Democrats to override the Democratic governor’s budget veto.

Her angry stand – captured on a colleague’s cellphone – went viral. But even though she may have added 20,000 Twitter followers last week, the experience left her cold.

“I have become increasingly aware of the fragility of this young experiment called American Democracy,” says Ms. Butler in a phone interview. “It’s terribly unsettling and scary.”

In some ways, Ms. Butler and her fellow Democrats say, the stunt crossed the line from political hardball to dirty trick in a state where distrust and acrimony run deep. For their part, state Republicans say they saw an opportunity and took it.

Their intent wasn’t secret at all. Caught in a stalemate over teacher salaries and Medicaid expansion, Republicans had said they were looking for a chance to override the veto.

“If I see an opportunity to override this budget veto, I was going to take that vote,” House Speaker Tim Moore told The Associated Press.

Fueled by tribal polarization and looming demographic shifts, the dramatic showdown in Raleigh, some political scientists say, harbors both the fundamental weakness of U.S. democracy as well as its potential for redemptive strength.

“American democracy ... is hard to kill, and there are a lot of forces working to stabilize and protect it, so we are not at the edge of a cliff,” says Harvard University political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of the 2018 book “When Democracies Die.” “But the use of the letter of the law to clearly subvert its spirit, that’s what happens when politicians abandon restraint. North Carolina is not quite a microcosm, but is somewhat representative of that: a very polarized state in which the dominant party is beginning to lose its grip.”

Ms. Butler says that she, like many Americans, may be shocked at attacks on democratic norms. But in another way, she says, “I would hate to admit that I have taken democracy for granted my whole adult life, but I guess I’m guilty of that.”

Historians say that democracies rarely fail by force. Far more often it’s “subversion by stealth” – the piecemeal dismantling of democratic norms. And in the U.S., state democracies have historically been just as defined by weakness as strength.

In fact, until 1965, most of the South lived under one-party oligarchies, mostly Democrat, that imposed a racist order on the population. Malapportionment – the slow-walking of power to cities and away from rural areas – resonated until the 1980s, a nadir when some Southern states saw only about 2 in 10 voters vested enough in the system to bother casting votes, says Philip Rocco, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“Before we start talking about democratic backsliding in the states, let’s remember that states are late democratizers,” says Mr. Rocco. “[But in North Carolina] the norms of institutional reciprocity and restraint that make it possible to have smooth transitions of government have been short-circuited. Then the question becomes: How long can you play hardball before you really are threatening the framework of subnational democracy?”

The shape of democracy and how it impacts how Americans live, work, love, and play has begun to look increasingly one-sided. Most U.S. states are now either solidly blue or solidly red. Perhaps as a result, both sides increasingly feel the other is out to destroy them, as 6 out of 10 voters said in a recent poll.

When voters in Wisconsin upheld the office of state treasurer, Republicans zeroed out the treasurer’s budget. Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan used lame-duck sessions to strip incoming Democratic politicians of power.

Meanwhile, technology-driven gerrymandering that allows parties to divide districts with surgical precision shocked democratic norms in 2010: Wisconsin Democrats, for example, cast more votes than Republicans in 2012, yet saw the legislature seated with 60% of Republicans.

But few states have tested the tensile strength of democratic bounds more than North Carolina, where Republicans have sought to deprive Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of his power to appoint judges, while also manipulating the judiciary through gerrymandering, changing the size of the state appellate court, and imposing racially charged voting restrictions.

“The tug of war between progress and the forces of the past go back centuries in Carolina,” says Andrew Reynolds, author of “Designing Democracy in a Dangerous World.” “And today it’s a purple state. You have very liberal, progressive people living right alongside very conservative Republicans. That’s what makes this so visceral. This is it, the showdown. It is a battle for the political heart and soul of the state. But it’s not just Democrats versus Republicans. It’s small ‘d’ democrats versus non-democrats. It’s bigger than party labels. It’s about the rules of the game.”

Those forces have spun to a head.

Last Tuesday, a Republican won a special congressional election called after a Republican operative last year was arrested for absentee ballot voting fraud. The legislature is under a hard deadline by Wednesday to redraw precinct maps after the state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Under orders from the court, lawmakers are using a state ping-pong lottery machine to randomize the process. To uphold the budget veto override, the Senate would need a Democrat to cross over.

Tom Pahl is a North Carolina voter from Hyde County, a Democrat in a conservative stronghold. He is also a county commissioner whose constituents make up the more than 800 Ocracoke Islanders who survived the near-total wreckage of Hurricane Dorian 10 days ago.

As a voter, he says, “You have to be paying attention to now how destructive this is to democracy, and you have to value democracy philosophically. ... Once it’s too late, we’ll all miss democracy. We will wish we had what we used to have.”

As a politician, he says, “you lose some, you win some, but you have to believe in the process. When the process is being undermined, the only recourse you have is desperate measures. We don’t want to go there. As a civil society, we should not want to go where this is leading us.”

He concedes that in the past Democrats “have taken measures that have been destructive to democratic values and to democracy,” but heartily disagrees that a majority of conservative voters are in favor of discarding ethical considerations to win. “I know conservative Republicans out here in rural North Carolina, and they are not by nature the kind of people” to approve of such measures.

In some ways, the moment in North Carolina presents “a great opportunity to show the redemptive strength of American democracy,” says Mr. Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also warns Democrats in North Carolina will be under pressure to adopt similar strategies to hold onto power if elected into a majority in 2020 or 2022.

Ms. Butler agrees. “You’re seeing the same with redistricting as you did with the budget: It’s our way or the highway, take it or leave it,” she says. “It’s unrelenting in spite of the fact that [Republicans] may get as good as they’ve given one day. They can’t lift their eyes up to the horizon and see what the future looks like.”

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