Welcome to the Wild West of Wisconsin
President Trump tweeted “Liberate,” and Wisconsin courts quickly answered the call. On May 13, mere hours after the state’s Supreme Court tossed out Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order, residents rushed to the bars, crowding in shoulder-to-shoulder, and celebrated with such jubilation one might have thought that the Packers had won the Super Bowl. Prohibition had ended: bar-goers held up glasses and toasted Trump and the end of tyranny. There was no sign of masks, gloves, or personal protective equipment of any kind, but as President Trump advised, alcohol and a little sunlight are often the best disinfectants. A few people may have coughed, a hug here and there, and few pitchers made the rounds; but that wasn’t COVID in the air. That was the taste of liberty.
On Twitter, President Trump applauded the Great State of Wisconsin for overturning Governor Evers’ stay-at-home order, abruptly re-opening Wisconsin two-weeks ahead of schedule and plunging the state into a patchwork of policies. “This place is bustling,” the President declared in a tweet. But, despite the revelry and Republican reassurance, the curve was far from flattening. Two weeks after the state suddenly re-opened, Wisconsin COVID-19 cases spiked. Racine, a working-class community along the Illinois border, became a national COVID-19 hotspot.
Lawsuits challenging stay-at-home orders have spread across the country, but despite Republicans’ best efforts, they have been largely unsuccessful with courts in Kansas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania backing the states’ governors and upholding stay-at-home orders. That leaves Wisconsin as the first and, so far, only state in which a high court has struck down a governor’s stay-at-home order, leaving in its place, a piece-meal plan that divides towns and communities along political lines.
It was yet another victory for the Republican-legislature and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who made news back in April when he appeared, dressed in a Hazmat suit and mask, to assure voters in a video that, despite a national lockdown, they were “incredibly safe” to go out and vote. Rather than postpone the primary as other states had done, the state’s Supreme Court sided with Vos and abrogated Governor Evers executive order to delay, forcing the election to proceed as usual. Hours later, the Supreme Court dealt a second blow to Democrats when it overturned a lower court decision and blocked attempts to extend the deadline for submitting absentee ballots.
Rather than lose their right to vote, Milwaukee residents braved the polls and stood in line for hours, amid rain and hail, to cast their ballot at one of the five polling places open in a city which typically has at least 180 voting sites. In Green Bay, the wait-time was even longer, with only two of the 31 polling places available, and a line at the local high school that looped around the building.
Together, Republican-backed judges in Wisconsin and the Republican-appointed justices of the Supreme Court delivered a resounding message to Wisconsin voters in what could be a harbinger of the fall election showdown—sacrifice your health or sacrifice your vote.
In his 2018 book The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics, Dan Kaufman describes Wisconsin as a “laboratory of democracy,” embodying Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ belief that states have the agency to experiment and implement new ideas without risk to the rest of the country. But, what happens when you have mad scientists in the lab?
In the past decade, Wisconsin has become Republicans’ own Area 51, a testing site for hijacking the courts, gerrymandering states, and deploying a win-at-all cost strategy. Wisconsin Republicans helped create a Frankenstein, and sent him straight to the White House. If past is prologue, we are set to do it again.
Wisconsin wrote the playbook for “How to Get Away with Gerrymandering.” In 2011, former Republican Governor Scott Walker and his Republican-controlled legislature drew the lines for the last decade’s redistricting, carving up counties until they turned a formerly blue state blood-red. Now, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, “gerrymandered maps make it virtually impossible for [Republicans] to ever lose their legislative majority.”
It’s an advantage they hope to hold onto. Last week, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative group, proposed a rule change that would require any legal battle involving redistricting to go through the state’s Supreme Court, where Republicans retain the majority. If successful, the proposal would ensure that the once-in-a-decade decision lands in the right hands, namely Republicans’ hands. After that, it’s simply a strategy of divide and conquer.
Once a laboratory of democracy, Wisconsin is now teetering at the brink of becoming a failed democracy. Over the past months, Wisconsin’s Republican have chosen politics over public safety, liberty over the rule of law, and the party’s interests over the country’s, all with the blessing of the state’s Supreme Court.
Far more than Wisconsin is at stake. For President Trump, winning the general election hinges on winning Wisconsin. If he doesn’t win Wisconsin, he likely won’t win the Rust Belt either; Wisconsin goes blue, and Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan will, too.
Wisconsin Republicans are gunning up for November’s election. And, like the cowboys of the Wild West, they live by laws of their own making. If this spring has made anything clear it’s that in a contested battle we better not count on the courts to check Republican ambition.