Rollins College

Threats to State Level Democracy by Charles Mahoney

This article was written mainly in response to the New York Times article “Wisconsin, Ground Zero for 2020 Politics, Looks Like a Tossup Again” written by Trip Gabriel, published April 4, 2019

The hyper-contentious national political climate is making its way into state politics, specifically to states which have high strategic importance to the two main parties. The most recent example of this is found in Wisconsin, were the Republican legislature moved to strip the governor of power after incumbent Governor Scott Walker lost by close to 6,000 votes, out of the 1.2 million.[1]The Republicans have been rather open with their intentions of making sure that Wisconsin remains red regardless of the elections outcome, with Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos stating, “We are going to stand like bedrock to guarantee that Wisconsin does not go back.”[2]Newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers decried the moves to limit his power, stating that the Republican party had, “overplayed its hand by using an unlawful process to accumulate more power for itself and override the will of the people, despite the outcome of last November’s election.” [3]While their restrictive measures were blocked by Wisconsin Circuit Court judge Richard Niess, the election of Brian Hagedorn to the Wisconsin Supreme Court means that conservatives will have considerable judicial power for the next few years, with Republicans already moving to appeal the earlier lame-duck lawsuit decision in the state Supreme Court.[4]

So much of the contention stems from the state’s potential swing state status. The state has become a battle ground between the two parties who see securing the states vote as crucial in maintaining power on the national level. Republicans have held significant power in the state for nearly the last decade and are responding aggressively in response to the projected “blue wave”. Last year’s gubernatorial campaigns were injected with massive amounts of outside funding, reaching over 93M dollars by the time votes were cast, compared to the under 40M which was raised in 2010. [5]This magnified national interest serves to undermine the effectiveness of Wisconsin’s state government, decreasing the legitimacy of the governing body, and leads to a breakdown in the citizenry’s trust of both of their leaders and the opposing party. Given that state level democracy serves as a safe guard for erosion on the national level, this potential degradation serves to undermine the foundations of the country as a whole. This situation is only exacerbated as parties and special interest groups continue to bombard with increasingly vitriolic campaigning and lobbying, turning Wisconsin into an ineffective political battlefield. Unfortunately, the power these monied interests have in elections has only increased over the past decades.

In their book Democracy in America?, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilen describe how since the 1990s, special interest groups and wealthy political donors have been able to exert influence over the political system. In 2001 Bush spent in excess of $200 million in the primaries alone, more than most candidates spent over the course of their entire campaign.[6]This began a campaign finance arms race where politicians began to forgo public funding provided through the Federal Election Commission in order to raise more private funds. By 2012 donations skyrocketed, with incumbent president Barack Obama receiving more than $874 million in funding.[7]The weight of money in politics has only grown since then, spreading beyond the presidential arena and into congressional and state government races, being firmly solidified in 2011 with the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision in which finical contributions to political campaigns by corporations were determined to be protected under freedom of expression. All of this has contributed to creating a political system in which the concerns and priorities of middle and lower-class constituents are treated more as grievances to be palliated, rather than issues to be addressed. While Wisconsin natives may not themselves have anti-democratic sentiments, this continued political warfare funded by vast campaign finance coffers may push them to support undemocratic actions.

This necrotic effect of wealth on politics is intensified when national attention falls upon state level elections. While the general animosity of American politics is seen across the board, this type of concrete action to limit the power of the opposing party, and refusal to accept the consequences of power changing hands as the result of elections is particularly alarming. In essence the republicans have sought to climb up the ladder of state political power, and cut the rungs out from underneath them, neutering any potential challenge. The undermines one of the most basic principles of American democracy: the system of checks and balances; If parties intentionally use the power of one branch, they control to strip powers from a branch they do not control, we may find ourselves in a political climate where the values of mutual forbearance and are viewed as liabilities to the party, rather than a necessary part of a health and sustainable democracy 

The core of my argument is that with this increased contention and influx of massive amounts of wealth and attention into state level elections from the national level, is one of the most dangerous aspects of democratic erosion in our current political climate. Certainly, some of this increased hostility comes from the mounting pressures of a globalizing world, and the hair trigger reaction times of vitriolic rhetoric which spreads so easily across Twitter, and Facebook. Yet, overall I feel that if national level groups continue to use state level politics as pieces on a chess board, we will find ourselves further in political and social debt. Time will tell if states can resist the gravitational pull of national forces, or if they will crack under its weigh.


[1]https://www.vox.com/2019/4/11/18306059/wisconsin-supreme-court-power-grab-democrats

[2]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/us/wisconsin-power-republicans.html

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/us/wisconsin-lawsuit-ruling.html

[4]https://www.wsaw.com/content/news/Wisconsin-Supreme-Court-to-take-lame-duck-lawsuit-508623761.html

[5]https://www.wisdc.org/news/press-releases/126-press-release-2019/6288-2018-governor-s-race-cost-record-93m

[6]https://prospect.org/article/white-house-high-rollers

[7]https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/most-expensive-election-history-numbers/321728/

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