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The Hill: Worried About Democracy? Pay Attention to the State


Washington obsesses over how many Republicans will vote for the eminently qualified Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, or Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) latest attention-getting move, or the forever tribulations of Vice President Kamala Harris.

There’s a lot more real action out in the states, at least in the red states. They are shredding rights for voting, minorities, women, gays and people with disabilities.

David Pepper, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic party, has written in a book that the states — rather than being the Laboratories of Democracy, as Louis Brandeis envisioned — have become “Laboratories of Autocracy.” This isn’t just a partisan view. Freedom House, the nonprofit that researches and promotes democracy and political freedom around the world, says American democracy has steadily declined over a decade, accelerating in last few years.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein, who has followed this issue closely, writes that it’s creating a “‘great divergence’ between the liberties of Americans in blue states and those in red states.”

Growing out of Trump’s charge of pervasive fraud in the 2020 election, a demonstrable lie, and a huge electoral turnout that worried conservatives, more than a dozen states last year enacted voting restrictions. More are in the offing this year.

They target less advantaged citizens, minorities, people with disabilities. They make voting by mail harder, create burdensome ID requirements, reduce or eliminate drop boxes that facilitate voting and make it tougher for people who need assistance.

An early test was in Texas this month; in heavily Democratic Harris County, 19 percent of mail ballots were rejected due to the new restrictive voting law; four years ago, only 0.3 percent of mail ballots were rejected in the county.

Numerous states also are severely limiting a woman’s ability to get an abortion. The daughter of a Dallas energy executive or the mistress of an Atlanta private equity manager will have no trouble finding an abortion venue. That won’t be the case for a single mother with a couple kids or a young unmarried teenager.

There are genuinely mean-spirited attacks on transgender people, including restricting some health care measures, and a main focus on barring trans athletes from competing in sports that match their gender identity. This isn’t an easy issue, but decisions should be left to athletic associations or schools, not politicians.

Book banning also is in vogue. The American Library Association says in three months at the end of last year there were more than 330 cases of proposed book bans, most fueled by self-styled parents’ rights groups. Most of the books are about gays and lesbians or race, including by such celebrated authors as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

The racial dog whistle is largely driven now by the “Critical Race Theory,” an academic discipline that contends racial bias is deeply embedded in our legal, social and political systems. It is taught mainly in elite law schools, but right-wingers are using it politically as an opportunity to restrict teaching about race in public schools.

Senate Republicans last week tried to smear Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black woman nominated to the High Court, with the critical race theory.

“This is political demagoguery,” says Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, an expert on the subject. It’s used mainly, he told me, by right-wingers to “smear any liberal who advances a progressive race agenda.” There are, he adds, critical race theorists who “spout implausible and sometimes downright ugly theories,” which serve to give “oxygen to the right-wing campaign of repression.” 

He considers Judge Jackson a “conscientious liberal leaning centrist jurist.” To portray her as a radical is “our era’s version of McCarthyism.” 

A good place to look is Virginia. It’s a Democratic-leaning state that last November elected a Republican governor: Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive, who was to represent the post-Trump GOP.

Right after assuming office, Youngkin played the critical race theory card, eliminating equity and inclusion from the state’s educational sites and set up a private “snitch line” to report teachers who promote “inherently divisive concepts.”

Does that include the history of slavery, or the state’s massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision or to discuss a recent New Yorker piece by Jill Abramson questioning whether a black slave was fathered by George Washington or one of his relatives?

Youngkin has been sued by parents of children with disabilities over an order prohibiting any local school board to mandate masks during the Pandemic. I was born in Virginia and appreciate how much progress this once staid state — Mark Shields used to call it a “hotbed of social rest” — has made in recent years. Youngkin is starting to roll that back.

Underlining this is right-wingers’ confidence they can get away with it given the Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. An example: Egregiously partisan gerrymandering, with racial overtones, by Republican legislatures in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been rejected as violations of the state’s constitution by the state supreme courts. All those justices are elected.

Now four of the Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court appear sympathetic to stripping state courts of the authority to enforce their own constitutions when it comes to gerrymandering and vest all power in state legislatures — irrespective of how discriminatory their actions.

That would accelerate the erosion of democracy and political freedoms.

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