The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP coup in North Carolina previews what we’re going to see everywhere

Protestors gather outside of a press conference room during a special session at the North Carolina Legislature in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

There’s a kind of coup going on in North Carolina, one that tells us a lot about just how far Republicans are willing to go to hold on to power and undercut Democrats.

Here’s what’s happening: After a close election, Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican incumbent Pat McCrory to win the governorship. So the Republican state legislature decided to call an “emergency” session before Cooper takes office and strip the governor of as many powers as it could.

The bills Republicans are pushing through the legislature would, among other things, cut the number of appointments the governor can make by 80 percent; make his cabinet appointments subject to state senate confirmation; transfer authority for the state board of education from the governor to the superintendent (a Republican ousted a Democrat this year in the election for that seat); move the authority to appoint trustees of the University of North Carolina from the governor to the legislature; and dilute the governor’s control over the state board of elections and mandate that the board will be chaired by a Democrat in odd-numbered years (when there are no elections) and a Republican in even-numbered years (when there are elections).  

And they’re barely bothering to pretend that if a Republican governor is elected in four years they won’t just reverse most or all of these changes.

This isn’t just hardball politics. This is a fundamentally anti-democratic approach to government, one that says that when we win, we get to implement our agenda, and when you win, you don’t.

North Carolina's Democratic governor-elect Roy Cooper says Republican lawmakers are trying to hinder his work by moving to strip powers from his office. (Video: Reuters)

To put this in context, perhaps nowhere in the country have Republicans moved more aggressively to solidify power by disenfranchising their opponents as they have in North Carolina. Immediately after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republicans enacted a voter suppression law that “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” in the words of the appeals court that later struck it down. The district lines already give the Republicans an enormous advantage: In 2016, Republicans outpolled Democrats in North Carolina congressional races by a margin of only 53-47, yet they held 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats.

The situation in the state house is similar: In this closely divided swing state, Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature because of aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts that pack African-Americans together in order to dilute their power. The districts were declared unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year, and the state has been ordered to redraw them and hold special elections next year. But in the meantime, in this year’s election Republicans won 56 percent of votes to the state senate, yet controlled 35 of the chamber’s 50 seats. In the state house the results were similar: Republicans won 53 percent of the votes, yet hold 74 of the 120 seats.

That isn’t to say there aren’t places where Democrats try to use gerrymandering to their advantage, too. But there’s a shamelessness to the way Republicans change rules, trample over long-established norms, and generally act as though any result except one in which they win is inherently illegitimate. And that’s the fundamental principle that guides them. As far as they’re concerned, Democratic votes are not real votes and therefore can and should be suppressed; elections in which Democrats win can only have been stolen; and elected Democrats are usurpers against whom no tactic of subversion is out of bounds.

I can already hear Republicans protesting, “What about all that faithless elector stuff? Huh? Huh?” My answer is: give me a break. The effort to get members of the Electoral College to change their votes to someone other than Donald Trump is halfhearted at best, and most Democratic elites have either rejected it outright or said it should go forward as nothing more than a symbolic expression of dissent and not a practical effort to actually overturn the results of the election. Nobody genuinely thinks it’s going to succeed as anything more than a statement. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a single Republican who has raised any objection to the kind of vote suppression the party has embraced as a means to win more elections, and the party’s leader is out literally celebrating low turnout among African-Americans, to the cheers of his crowds.

Ask yourself: What would be happening right now if Donald Trump had won more than three million more votes than Hillary Clinton, but Clinton prevailed in the Electoral College? Would he, his supporters, and prominent Republicans have said, “We don’t like the outcome, but that’s how the system works”? Of course not. They’d be screaming bloody murder, they’d be preparing articles of impeachment to file on the day Clinton was inaugurated, they’d be charging that the vote was stolen, they’d be filing lawsuits to overturn (not just recount) the results in every swing state, and Trump would be telling his supporters to use any means necessary to achieve justice. You think we’re divided now? If the situation was reversed we’d be on our way to civil war.

In the next few years, Democrats are going to be up against versions of the North Carolina model in every state where Republicans have power and at the national level as well: efforts not just to implement Republican policy goals but to change the rules to make it as difficult as possible for Democrats to win. It has already been happening for a while, and it’s only going to accelerate.