I spent more than two decades living and working overseas to advance democracy and credible elections — giving me plenty of opportunity to see the lengths to which autocrats will go to gain power. Even so, the proposed Wisconsin power grab is shocking in its brazenness. If this occurred in any of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy. U.S. diplomats would be writing furious cables, and decision makers would be threatening to cut off the flow of assistance. Yet we are conspicuously failing to hold ourselves to the same standard.
It is difficult to assess actions in our own country through an international lens. We are too mired in events and have too much at stake. But imagine for a moment that we’re a foreign election observer touching down in an unfamiliar land called Wisconsin.
Experts around the world have spent years analyzing the best ways to manage elections to ensure democratic outcomes. A nonpartisan election body is considered best practice. The U.S. aid agency’s own guidelines on elections emphasize the importance of neutral and independent election management. Even when countries establish a nonpartisan body of professionals, there is constant debate around how election administrators are selected and who does the selecting. In Georgia (the country), I once had to listen to hours of complaints about how an election official had a sister who in high school dated a man who was now affiliated with a political party, casting the whole election in doubt.
Knowing all this, our imaginary election observer in Wisconsin would be alarmed by Republican politicians openly stating that they alone should run the election process, rather than a bipartisan commission of professionals. (Johnson has bluntly said that the Republican-controlled state legislature should “reassert its power.”) In other countries, political parties trying to control elections usually attempt to hide their maneuvers. They might try to quietly exert pressure on election officials or curry influence with them behind the scenes. In Cambodia, where I once led an audit of the voter registry that showed serious manipulation by the election commission, its members defended their work by pointing to the commission’s ostensible independence. There is usually at least lip service to the importance of neutral election administration, in large part to assuage the international community.
Would the United States behave better under the scrutiny of foreign observation? Unlikely. We are reluctant to even let observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conduct monitoring missions. We largely ignore neutral democratic assessments of our country, including one recently issued by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that labeled the United States a “backsliding democracy.” Americans think of ourselves as teachers of democracy, not students — so we tend to ignore external assessments of our behavior, even when it follows the very same standards we have used for judging others.
Now we are increasingly disregarding internal critiques as well, relying on the convenient accusation of partisanship. There are no recognized neutral referees anymore. Wisconsin proposes an indisputably undemocratic action — but calling that out is dismissed as party politics.
During my 25-year-career in international democracy work, I lived through coups and conflicts and observed dozens of elections. I thought I had seen it all — only to find myself overwhelmed by our own democratic dysfunction and lack of a clear path forward.
Wisconsin’s shenanigans are just the latest in a series of actions to undermine the most basic democratic principles we demand of others: One person, one vote. Neutral election management. Majority rule. Acceptance of election results. Peaceful transition of power. Don’t storm your legislature and attack people and then pretend it didn’t happen.
This contempt for past standards creates myriad opportunities for malign actors, foreign and domestic, to drive our democracy into a death spiral.
As I’ve said to desperate democrats elsewhere, it is up to us, the people. No party or leader will save us here. No foreign savior will shake us out of our stupor. Americans need to start caring about democracy enough to act on it. We must organize, engage in peaceful protest and take inspiration from others — such as those brave activists in Hong Kong willing to stand up to the might of the Chinese Communist Party. And if we don’t, if we shrug off acts such as Wisconsin, well, then it’s our own fault. Apathy is how democracies die. I’ve seen it.