Robert Reich: What’s Happening In Wisconsin Is Important To Future Of American Democracy – OpEd


One of the biggest challenges to the future of American democracy is unfolding Tuesday, but not in Manhattan. It’s occurring in Wisconsin. 

Beyond the fact that no former president has ever faced a criminal indictment, Donald Trump’s arraignment in Manhattan on criminal charges offers little by the way of news. An arraignment leading to a criminal trial that takes place months (if not years) from now is a dull technical legal proceeding.

To satisfy the public’s seemingly insatiable craving for Trump entertainment, the media is filling the void with Trump swag: wall-to-wall “special coverage,” on-the-spot correspondents, panels of pundits, interviews with current and past Trump lawyers and former prosecutors, opinion polls, interviews with “average” Trump supporters, and mindless chatter about Trump’s moods (“troubled,” “angry,” “defiant,” “exhilarated”).

Tonight, Trump is expected to deliver a prime-time address from Mar-a-Lago. No news there, either. Predictably, it will be little more than lies and smears — more free media coverage for Trump’s venomous bluster. 


A larger challenge to American democracy is occurring in Wisconsin, where voters choose a new judge for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and a senator for the state Senate. But it’s getting far less attention than what’s occurring in New York. 

Wisconsin is a key swing state in the upcoming 2024 presidential election. Its Supreme Court and legislature could be critical to the outcome.

Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the nation. Although voters in the state divide almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans hold 63 out of 99 seats in the state Assembly and 21 of 33 seats in the state Senate.

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to leave partisan gerrymandering cases to state courts. This means that if the justice who’s elected today alters the majority of the seven-person Wisconsin Supreme Court, the court could strike down the state’s wildly gerrymandered voting maps — a major advance for democracy. 

But even this might not be enough to restore democracy to Wisconsin. Today’s special election to fill an open Wisconsin Senate seat will decide whether Republicans gain a supermajority that could allow them to impeach the new state justice.

The Republican candidate for that seat, Dan Knodl, has suggested he might try to do so if he doesn’t like who’s elected to the court. 

Not incidentally, Knodl was one of 15 Wisconsin Republican lawmakers who in January 2021 sent a letter to then-Vice President Mike Pence asking him to delay certifying presidential results that showed Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.

The underlying issue in Wisconsin is the same threat to American democracy it’s been since Trump lied and smeared his way into national consciousness eight years ago: whether an authoritarian demagogue can take over a national political party and that party can then control enough state legislatures to elect that authoritarian — even though a large majority of voters reject him.

Trump lost his 2020 presidential bid by 7 million votes. But he could have won the Electoral College, and therefore been elected president, had he won just 42,918 more votes spread across just three swing states: Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.  

So the rules about who gets to vote are crucial, especially in these swing states. And who sets those rules? State legislatures, along with state courts that decide whether the legislatures are acting constitutionally. Hence, the importance of today’s two races in Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin Republicans have already changed state law to make voting more onerous by enacting a strict voter ID requirement. And last year, the state’s conservative Supreme Court banned drop boxes for absentee ballots. Wisconsin now ranks 47th out of 50 states on how easy it is to vote.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court was the only state supreme court in the nation that agreed to hear Trump’s challenge to the 2020 election, eventually rejecting — by a single vote — his attempt to throw out 200,000 ballots in the state’s two large Democratic counties.

Another way Trump could have won in 2020 was if the outcome of the election had been determined by Republican-controlled state legislatures in Wisconsin and other swing states — as Trump and many Republican members of Congress sought. Yet another reason today’s Wisconsin races are so important. 


Friends, this is how authoritarian minorities steal governments from democratic majorities: They do it step by step. They design voting districts to freeze out a majority of voters. They then gain legislative supermajorities that allow them to control the state executive and state courts. Then they capture Electoral College majorities despite the popular vote.

Or they sow so much doubt about the popular vote that they decide the outcome.

This was Trump’s playbook in 2020. He didn’t succeed then, but he might in 2024.

What’s happening in Manhattan’s criminal court is important. Holding a former president accountable to the rule of law is essential.

But what’s happening in Wisconsin may prove as, if not more, important to the future of American democracy. It will either strengthen or weaken the levers of self-government in a state where those levers could make all the difference.

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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