Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Sometimes in politics, if you’re not angry it’s because you’re not paying attention. Or you’re just a hyper-partisan hack.
Because after an election that saw the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in 100 years, we are witnessing an effort to roll back election results in big swing states.
In Michigan and Wisconsin, Republicans who control the state legislatures are trying to use year-end “lame duck” sessions to rein in the governors’ power now that Democrats have won those seats.
Make no mistake: This is an end run around the election result. Some folks have called it a “legislative coup.” It’s also a troubling sign of how toxic the situational ethics afflicting our politics has become. Situational ethics are when alleged principles are conveniently forgotten in favor of partisan interests. It’s evident when something Republicans would’ve been apoplectic about Hillary Clinton doing is conveniently excused when Donald Trump does it – and vice versa.
In Wisconsin, Republicans pushed through a series of bills by a one-vote margin before sunrise Wednesday. Their aim is to reduce the power of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general on issues such as welfare reform and food stamps – as well as to restrict the governor’s appointments to key state boards. They even want to block the attorney general from withdrawing the state from an anti-Obamacare lawsuit. Republicans also cut back the number of “early voting dates” – which may have increased minority turnout this cycle – to hurt Democrats’ efforts going forward.
This is a partisan power grab, pure and simple. But Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’s only motivated by checks and balances.
Let’s be real: There’s no way the Legislature would be doing this if Republican Gov. Scott Walker had been re-elected.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Vos admitting his real rationale. On Tuesday, the speaker said, “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
This amounts to a discomfort with democracy itself. And it is evidence of what happens when politics, even at the state level, gets treated as ideological blood sport.
In Michigan, Republicans are trying to pull the same craven maneuver before three Democratic women take their roles as governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
Among the proposals: allowing the state Legislature to step in over the attorney general on specific cases and remove the secretary of state from overseeing the state campaign finance system. Republicans have also pulled a bait and switch with a minimum wage increase.
These brazen moves in Wisconsin and Michigan follow a shameful model set by North Carolina two years ago when the Republican state Legislature greeted the narrow victory of Democrat Roy Cooper as governor by dramatically reducing his power of appointments, basically aiming to neuter the office. Those efforts are still winding their way through the courts. But at the time, it seemed like North Carolina was an outlier. Now it’s in danger of being the new normal.
Because Republicans control the legislatures in these states, there’s little Democrats can do but try to get the measures blocked and overturned in court. And Democrat Jim Doyle, a former Wisconsin governor and attorney general, has said he’s confident the legislative actions will be judged unconstitutional. Maybe.
But no matter what happens, this is a dangerous precedent – essentially an effort to undercut election results. And it’s an extension of the situational ethics and negative partisanship afflicting our politics.
Republicans would rightfully complain if Democrats did it to them. But principles only matter if they apply no matter what party is in power.
Democracies depend on an assumption of goodwill among fellow citizens. But the actions we’re seeing in these states reflect the results of a 2016 Pew Research poll that found strong majorities of the most partisan voters view the other party with “fear,” “anger” and “frustration.”
If you think the other party isn’t just mistaken but out to harm the country, then you’ll do whatever is necessary to stop them – even degrade our democracy by disrespecting our election results.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And that’s perilously close to where we are – as George Washington warned us in his 1796 farewell address more than 200 years ago: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge … is itself a frightful despotism.”