A month ago, voters in Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor and Attorney General.
That was wrong with the Republicans of the state, who control the extremely gerrymander legislature. So they proposed a new plan: this week: they passed a series of bills to limit the power of the executive. These measures deprived the governor of the power to deal with gun control, economic development, the Affordable Care Act, and various other matters of the state. Michigan Republicans make similar moves.
Republicans say they are simply trying to maintain the balance of power. But critics see something more insidious: an attempt to block democratically elected leaders, thus subverting the will of the people. "It's a take-over – clear and simple," said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) To my colleagues. "It literally goes against the will of the public who voted for those responsible just 30 days ago."
Nor is it entirely foreign to those who study the collapse of democracies in the world.
According to Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago and author of "How to Save a Constitutional Democracy," autocrats came to power through coups or states of emergency,
Now, however, autocrats are far more likely to claim to function in the democratic system. Rather than seize power, he said, leaders will often retain the attributes of a republic while phasing out pro-competitive institutions. It's "the dismantling of democracy from within," Huq said.
This is effective for several reasons. It is much more difficult for activists to gather their troops and organize demonstrations when democracy disappears over the years. When a shift is small, it's hard to get people off the street. At the moment people are engaged, it is often too late. And international groups and coalitions such as the European Union are often reluctant to call countries that most democratic, for fear of totally alienating the executive power. Sometimes, the leaders think that it is better to have an imperfect country operating within a system, participating in certain institutions, than a country totally outside the system.
Huq said he began to see the authoritarians adopt this technique seriously in the 2000s. Leaders learn from each other, he said. Over the past two decades, this approach has shifted from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bolivia; and from Russia to Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Strategies for creating an autocracy do not always exist, they were invented, Huq said. "And once they were invented, they spread."
In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chávez's party lost a series of local elections. In response, Chavez dismissed elected officials by creating alternative governing units. Thus, even if the elect were seated, they no longer had any significant authority. Russian leader Vladimir Putin did the same with the government when his party started losing, Huq said.
Other researchers have traced a similar trend. Political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levinsky show in "How Democracies Die" that democracies are often murdered by leaders who use the law against itself. Their work shows that "constitutions disassociate when poorly motivated leaders deliberately expose their vulnerabilities," writes the New York Times.
Huq does not compare what is happening in Wisconsin with Venezuela or Russia. But he warns that Republican maneuvers weaken the ability of our democracy to function. This could be the beginning, he says, of a disturbing trend.
"Changing the rules of the game after losing a turn is one way to show that you are skeptical of the democratic game," Huq said. And it is difficult to have a functioning democracy when "a party simply does not believe in democracy unless it wins," he said.
Several nations have tried to restore democracy after populist strongmen. It was never the same.
Believe the autocrat
The United States is no longer a "democracy in its own right," says new study