Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the day seditionary forces sacked and looted the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn a lawful democratic election and install Donald Trump as fuhrer-king.
The violence stopped long ago, but the insurrection continues in other forms. State-level Republicans have been over the last year codifying into law an array of election procedures that could, in the worst case, create conditions for the stealing of a presidential election. As I said in August, the next time the Republicans attempt a coup d'état, it won't be loud like January 6, 2021. It will be quiet. It will be nice and legal.
To help us understand more, I got in touch with David Pepper. He’s the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of the recent book, Laboratories of Autocracy. In it, Pepper explains why the threats against democracy are worse than most Americans believe. I asked David if we’ve learned anything since the January 6 insurrection.
David Pepper: I think we’re learning a lot about how orchestrated it was from the top. We’ll learn a lot more in the coming weeks and months. That’s good. There should be accountability. But most of America has yet to learn that those attacking democracy are also learning. They have learned from failure. We must focus on that as much as the January 6 committee is focused on the 2021 attack.
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What are they learning?
That they started too late. It was too disorganized. That while they were right that much of what they wanted to achieve takes place through state legislatures, that work can take place long before November 2024. So the next time, they won’t even need to do something that looks as blatantly illegitimate as storming a building. That’s important. A cornerstone of success is that it looks legitimate.
Which was the case for the establishment of Jim Crow apartheid.
Yes. It was a gradual erosion that gained speed. There was outright violence, of course. But the disenfranchisement of Black voters at the heart of it was dressed in the narrative of reform and “good government,” and upheld by the courts. So yes, it had the veneer of legality. It was sold as a battle against corruption and voter fraud.
The remedy then was federal action. Is that the remedy now?
It’s an essential but not sufficient step. History teaches us that if there isn’t a hard federal pushback against state-level attacks on democracy, those attacks will succeed. Even the founders understood this and would expect federal resistance to what’s now happening.
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But there also has to be a reframing of politics from all those who care about democracy, so that the champions are fighting for democracy in all 50 states, not just fighting for federal wins in swing states.
What would that "reframing of politics" look like?
Fifty states. Every year. Every level. No seats uncontested. Some percentage of what’s spent in presidential years invested every year, everywhere. The response will be, “That’s crazy!” But it’s what those attacking democracy did years ago. It’s worked incredibly well.
After the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, the Democrats figured federal action would protect individual rights. A consequence of that way of thinking has been pouring everything into national elections, ignoring local elections -- and whole states -- almost entirely. That way of thinking seems ingrained. Thoughts?
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Back then, a broader collective said, “There’s more to this than federal offices. In the states is where the levers of democracy rest. We need a game plan to build permanent success there.” That conversation hasn’t happened in a generation while the forces attacking democracy had this territory to themselves. One of the biggest problems is viewing politics through the lens of swing states. Once a state falls out of that category, it’s off the map. Those attacking democracy go after states like Virginia and New Jersey even after they appear blue.
It looks to me like you're trying to get people to think outside the current debate over the reform of the filibuster in the Senate.
The filibuster has no legitimate role as an obstacle to efforts to protect democracy in states. Voting rights protection must pass. But that’s only one of 30 steps I outline in my book of what we have to do. We can’t just wait around for filibuster reform as if that’s the whole fight.
But it's probably not going anywhere on account of a handful of Democratic senators not having the stomach to get rid of it.
My fear is our kids will look back at 2022 as the equivalent of 1877. Where a refusal by the federal government to stand up for democracy allowed those attacking democracy to succeed. Every Democratic senator who believes in democracy must start acting that way.
This is not like any other issue being debated. But too many are treating it that way, even those who are on the right side of the issue. And more than any other issue, there is a Constitutional basis to carve out an exception to the filibuster to protect democracy. The founders would be appalled by inaction in the face of what’s happening.
Can you explain that basis in brief?
Article IV, Section 4: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” This is exactly what they meant – “shall guarantee.” By republican form of government, they meant the will of the people being reflected in statehouses. Every senator took an oath. That trumps the filibuster. Numerous states no longer meet the definition of a “Republican form of government.”
They are increasingly "laboratories of autocracy."
Yes. Not only are they weakening the pillars of the rule of law and democracy, but they are operating as laboratories. As I said at the outset, they are always learning – from mistakes, successes, from each other. In the book, I walk through that pattern for the past decade.
So the Democrats could turn to the Constitution to carve out an exception to the filibuster, but that would require the will to fight. I think most Democrats want to fight, but there's just enough who do not in just enough places to prevent forward movement.
The Constitution couldn’t be more clear. And in this case, respecting the filibuster means you are violating your oath to the Constitution because 50 Republican senators are willing to violate theirs. This isn’t a policy debate. It’s whether you’ll fulfill an oath to guarantee democracy in states. The fact that [outgoing Republican senator from Ohio Rob] Portman won’t doesn’t excuse you from violating that oath.
In the Daily News, you said: "It’s a huge task, and there is a role for every American who cares about democracy to play. And it’s a cause that’s far larger than one party." I have to say, given how little Americans are willing to sacrifice in the face of a pandemic that's going to kill a million of us, that I have serious doubts about even those who care about democracy. Please tell me I'm wrong.
I can only hope you’re wrong. It’s why I wrote my book – to do all I can to wake people up. It’s much worse than most people seem to appreciate. It’s far more similar to the dawn of Jim Crow than most appreciate. Our political mindset and frame will not succeed in combating it, but there’s a way everyone can make a difference.
In a sense, you're working against the idea that people have lost faith in democracy. The problem is really having too much faith, no?
True. We are blinded by an assumption that this couldn’t happen here. If we saw the steps taking place in statehouses happening in another country, we’d call it out and see it for what it was. But because it’s here, we still assume the best. The founders did not. They understood the risk and guaranteed the federal government would do something.
Trump and others understand what’s happening. That’s why they celebrate [Hungarian President Viktor] Orbán. Guaranteed electoral outcomes, a minority locked in power, but with the veneer of legitimacy. Many of these statehouses are taking the very steps Hungary has. We see it in Hungary. But not in our own states. These states have the power to upend our entire nation’s democracy.