Ari Berman on 'how Wisconsin became the GOP's laboratory for dismantling democracy'
Tony Evers (Nuccio DiNuzzo:AFP)

With Republicans set to make major gains in the November midterms, we speak with reporter Ari Berman, who says Republican control of the Legislature in Wisconsin is a preview of the damage the party could do if empowered in Washington. Berman’s latest piece for Mother Jones is titled “How Wisconsin Became the GOP’s Laboratory for Dismantling Democracy.” It looks at how severely gerrymandered districts there give Republicans nearly two-thirds of the seats in the statehouse with less than 50% of the popular vote, and how they have used those inflated majorities to undermine Democratic Governor Tony Evers by stripping his powers, refusing to confirm his nominees and ignoring his legislative proposals. Berman says the takeover of the Wisconsin Legislature is part of a larger GOP plan to empower swing state officials to assist former President Trump in staging a coup in 2024.

Ari Berman on "How Wisconsin Became the GOP’s Laboratory for Dismantling Democracy"

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We continue our conversation with Ari Berman, one of the leading journalists covering voting rights, reporter at Mother Jones, author of Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His new cover story is headlined How Wisconsin Became the GOP’s Laboratory for Dismantling Democracy. Ari, can you lay out what you found?

ARI BERMAN: Absolutely, Amy, and thank you for having me on to discuss this. Really Wisconsin is a case study for how Republicans are dismantling democracy in real time. Right now, but also it’s a project that dates back over a decade where Republicans have tried to create a situation where their majorities are voter-proof, that they control the state no matter what happens politically.

First it was the election of Scott Walker in 2011 and the union-busting, the voter suppression, the dismantling of the state’s campaign finance system. Then it was the extreme gerrymandering that has basically put Republicans in control of the state legislature for the past decade. They passed the most gerrymandered maps in the country in 2011. Last year in 2021, they passed even more gerrymandered maps. Now Republicans in the state legislature are on the verge of a supermajority in the state which would allow them to be able to override the veto of Democratic Governor Tony Evers if he is reelected.

What we have in Wisconsin is a paradox. It’s a 50/50 swing state, but in the state legislature, they are on the verge of a two-thirds Republican supermajority, meaning that the legislature is completely out of step with the rest of the state and they have refused to pass popular policies like expanding Medicaid, like background checks for guns. They refused to repeal an abortion ban from 1849 that makes no exceptions for rape or incest. In the Dobbs decision, Justice Samuel Alito said that we need to return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives, but what Wisconsin has shown is just how disconnected the people’s representatives are from the people themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about this, what this gerrymandering represents, and how Wisconsin has often been a laboratory for the country from welfare to this kind of gerrymandering and then how this fits into another very closely watched race, the senator race, that could be flipped—not clear—by Mandela Barnes as he challenges Ron Johnson.

ARI BERMAN: It’s important to note that Wisconsin has had a long progressive history for many years. It was a state that had the blueprint for policies like Social Security, for collective bargaining rights, for the direct election of U.S. senators back in the early 1900s. Under Scott Walker, it became a laboratory for anti-democratic conservatism. Tons of money from places like the Bradley Foundation to try to privatize schools, to dismantle unions, to dismantle campaign finance laws, to suppress votes. That has accelerated dramatically with the extreme gerrymandering that we are seeing. Basically what Republicans can do in Wisconsin is they can nullify the will of the voters. They don’t have to pass popular policies, they can do extreme things and they feel like there is no accountability.

Routinely, Democrats get more votes than Republicans but Republicans have these huge majorities in the state legislature. In 2018, for example, Democrats won all five statewide elections in Wisconsin including for governor. They got 53% of the vote for the state assembly but Democrats only got 36% of seats. Right now there’s a competitive race for governor, there’s a competitive race for the U.S. Senate, but Republicans could be on the verge of getting two thirds majorities in the legislature. That is a really scary situation for democracy because what that means is that essentially the heavily gerrymandered legislature which has no accountability could be in charge of running elections in the state. That poses a grave danger to fair elections in 2024.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written about what the Republican plan is for one-party rule this year. Explain.

ARI BERMAN: Basically, what Republicans want to do is they want to take control in 2022 in key swing states like Wisconsin so that Trump’s coup will succeed in 2024. You will remember that Trump asked Republican state legislatures in places like Wisconsin to overturn the will of the voters. They didn’t do that because in some cases they didn’t have the power to do that. In Wisconsin the governor certifies the presidential election. What Republicans want to do is they want to get a two-thirds supermajority in Wisconsin so the ultra gerrymandered legislature will instead be in charge of certifying elections. That could potentially mean they could overthrow the popular vote in these states.

I think it is really important to note that these state races in 2022, who is elected governor, secretary of state, attorney general, but also who controls the legislatures, is going to have a huge impact on whether we will have a fair election in 2024. I think a lot of people only pay attention to presidential elections but if you overlook these midterms, it is going to be too late. What happens in the states has a huge impact on what happens nationally as well. Wisconsin has become the laboratory for dismantling democracy not just in the state, but nationwide. The voter suppression, the union-busting, the attacks on campaign finance laws, these are things that happened in Wisconsin and then were exported to other states to become not just a state model but a national model as well. So what is happening in places like Wisconsin affects not just Wisconsin, but the whole country as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, of course talking about Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor could become Wisconsin’s first Black U.S. senator if he defeats Republican incumbent Ron Johnson in November.
During the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020, we spoke to Barnes and asked him what is being done at the state level around police reform.

MANDELA BARNES: We introduced—or the governor introduced—a legislative package Now, we know that a legislative package is not going to solve the deep problems, but it takes a coordinated effort. We need action at every level of government reimagining what keeping people safe looks like.
It goes to making sure that there is funding on the front end to prevent violence from happening in the first place, like violence interrupters, but also having support for community organizations, having support for job training programs, whatever the case may be, to create communities, to create societies where people have an opportunity to thrive, where less or fewer police are actually needed to respond to anything in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Mandela Barnes, who could become the first Black senator from Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. If you could comment overall on this race, as you traveled through Wisconsin, and what else you are looking at in this pivotal election year?

ARI BERMAN: First off, I think it is important to note that criminal justice reform was very popular in Wisconsin, was introduced before the legislature, and the heavily gerrymandered legislature took no action on it. So the lack of criminal justice reform in Wisconsin is also a victim of gerrymandering.

But Republicans are absolutely hammering Mandela Barnes on “Defund the police.” When I was there, there were ads over and over by Ron Johnson’s campaign saying Mandela Barnes wanted to defund the police. That’s not true. They’ve twisted his words. But I think the idea is that they’re trying to make the election of the first Black senator in Wisconsin seem like something that’s scary and dangerous and that’s going to lead to more crime. So I think they are absolutely running a very racist campaign against Mandela Barnes there by Ron Johnson. I think it is hurting Mandela Barnes and he has a difficult time to become a U.S. senator to try to counteract these attacks.

But it is a very, very close state. And so what I’m looking at is not just the U.S. Senate; I’m looking at whether Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, will get reelected, and I’m looking at whether Republicans will get supermajorities in the legislature or not. So I think there are a lot of races that are really important. I think it is a microcosm of the country writ large where these state races have a tremendous importance, and they have a tremendous importance affecting not just state politics but national politics as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, thank you for being with us, senior reporter for Mother Jones. We will link to your piece How Wisconsin Became the GOP’s Laboratory for Dismantling Democracy. Ari is author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Coming up, we go to Florida, to voting rights activist Desmond Meade on how Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is attempting to scare formerly incarcerated people away from voting by using his newly formed election police force to arrest people on trumped-up voter fraud charges. Back in 30 seconds.