The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Dismantling of democracy from the inside’: It happened in Venezuela, Russia — and Wisconsin?

People protest the legislature's extraordinary session during the official Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Capitol in Madison, Wis. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

A month ago, Wisconsin voters elected a Democratic governor and attorney general.

That didn’t sit well with the state’s Republicans, who control the heavily gerrymandered legislature. So they came up with a new plan this week: They passed bills to limit the power of the executive branch. The measures stripped away the governor’s power to address gun control, economic development, the Affordable Care Act and other state matters. Michigan Republicans are making similar moves.

Republicans maintain that they’re trying to maintain the balance of power. But critics see something more insidious: an attempt to hamstring democratically elected leaders, thereby subverting the will of the people. “It’s a power grab — clear and simple,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told my colleagues. “It’s literally going against the will of the public that voted for these officials just 30 days ago.”

It’s also not entirely unfamiliar to those who study how democracies falter around the world.

It used to be that autocrats came to power through coups or by enacting states of emergency, according to Aziz Huq, a University of Chicago law professor and co-author of the book “How to Save a Constitutional Democracy.”

Now, though, autocrats are much more likely to pretend to operate within the democratic system. Rather than seizing power, he said, many times, leaders will keep the trappings of a republic, while incrementally eliminating the institutions that enable competition. It’s the “dismantling of democracy from the inside,” Huq said.

This is effective for several reasons. It’s much harder for activists to rally the troops and stage protests when democracy disappears in drips. When any one shift is small, it’s hard to get people riled up and on the streets. By the time people are engaged, it’s often too late. And international groups and coalitions like the European Union are often reluctant to call out countries that are mostly democratic, for fear of alienating the executive altogether. Sometimes, leaders calculate that it’s better to have an imperfect country operating within a system, participating in some of the institutions, than one totally outside the system.

Huq said he began seeing authoritarians adopt this technique in earnest in the 2000s. Leaders learn from each other, he said. So over two decades, this approach hopscotched from Venezuela to Ecuador and Bolivia and from Russia to Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Strategies for creating autocracy don’t always exist, they’re invented, Huq said. “And once they’re invented, they spread.”

In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chávez’s party lost a series of local elections. In response, Chávez stripped those elected officials of power by creating alternate governing units. So even though the elected officials were seated, they no longer had any kind of meaningful authority. Russian leader Vladimir Putin did something similar with governorship when his party started to lose, Huq said.

Other scholars have charted a similar trend. In “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky show that democracies are often killed by leaders who use the law against itself. Their work shows that “constitutions break when ill-motivated leaders deliberately expose their vulnerabilities,” the New York Times wrote.

Huq is not comparing what’s happening in Wisconsin to Venezuela or Russia. But he does caution that the Republican maneuvers weaken the ability of our democracy to function. It could be the start, he argues, of a worrying trend.

“Changing the rules of the game after you’ve lost one round is a way of showing you’re skeptical of the democratic game,” Huq said. And it’s hard to have a functional democracy when “one party just doesn’t believe in democracy unless they win,” he said.

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