NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 27th, 2022

Book Review: Laboratories of Autocracy puts Republican-run statehouses under a spotlight

While gov­er­nors, may­ors, and oth­er local lead­ers are some­what well known, few­er peo­ple can name a sin­gle mem­ber of their state legislature. 

State­hous­es are get­ting less atten­tion and mass media cov­er­age than in decades past, yet most non-fed­er­al leg­isla­tive author­i­ty in the Unit­ed States is con­cen­trat­ed and exer­cised at the state lev­el, as opposed to the local level. 

In Lab­o­ra­to­ries of Autoc­ra­cy, David Pep­per argues that state leg­isla­tive bod­ies under right wing con­trol use this sad state of affairs to work clan­des­tine­ly behind the scenes, under­min­ing elec­tions at every lev­el and U.S. democ­ra­cy as a whole. 

Laboratories of Autocracy book cover

Lab­o­ra­to­ries of Autoc­ra­cy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines, by David Pep­per (St. Hele­na Press, Octo­ber 14th, 2021)

In the book’s ini­tial chap­ters, using Ohio as a case study, Pep­per explains how ger­ry­man­der­ing in 2010 has fueled a decade of cor­rup­tion and rigged elec­tions. Although these pas­sages are large­ly focused on Ohio, the issues dis­cussed aren’t unique to the Buck­eye State, and affect many oth­er states. 

The small size of most House and Sen­ate dis­tricts, along with con­straints on the amount of time that many leg­is­la­tures can be in ses­sion, exac­er­bate the prob­lems result­ing from the demise of count­less local media out­lets that used to cov­er leg­isla­tive pro­ceed­ings. With­out local­ly-focused reporters keep­ing a watch on state­hous­es, it’s hard­er for the pub­lic to track the pro­ceed­ings and the players.

Before address­ing the neg­a­tive out­comes of ger­ry­man­der­ing in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Pep­per dis­cuss­es the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­tures enact­ing extreme­ly unpop­u­lar leg­is­la­tion draft­ed by pow­er­ful, pri­vate inter­ests, includ­ing cor­po­rate lob­by­ing groups. Pep­per explains that in Ohio, Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors were able to part­ner with lob­by groups and pri­vate com­pa­nies to prof­it off of state fund­ing for schools and prisons. 

One of the most promi­nent groups dri­ving state leg­is­la­tion in Repub­li­can run states is ALEC. Effec­tive­ly pri­va­tiz­ing the leg­isla­tive process, ALEC mem­bers draft leg­is­la­tion that gets opaque­ly rammed through by Repub­li­can legislators. 

Pep­per does an excel­lent job in these chap­ters of reestab­lish­ing his premise and adding con­text to his pre­vi­ous com­men­tary. The book cites many exam­ples and fig­ures that could eas­i­ly blend togeth­er as the book goes on, but by high­light­ing the main points of each chap­ter and refer­ring back to them fre­quent­ly, Pep­per does his best to ensure that read­ers don’t get confused. 

Pep­per reminds read­ers at mul­ti­ple junc­tures that these prob­lems aren’t unique to Ohio. Fol­low­ing the 2008 elec­tion, Repub­li­cans across the coun­try began a clear and full assault on sev­er­al groups: young vot­ers, Black vot­ers, and ear­ly voters. 

These pas­sages will like­ly res­onate pow­er­ful­ly with any read­er who has been fol­low­ing the pub­lic attacks on vot­ing rights fol­low­ing the 2020 election.

Pep­per pro­vides spe­cif­ic details and con­text to show that attacks on vot­ing rights have been hap­pen­ing behind the scenes for a much longer peri­od of time.

Pep­per specif­i­cal­ly address­es Sec­tion 5 of the Vot­ing Rights Act and how this pro­vi­sion could have stopped many pieces of leg­is­la­tion Repub­li­cans have been try­ing to enact. Cit­ing the book’s ear­li­er chap­ters, Pep­per reminds read­ers that these bills are high­ly unpop­u­lar among mem­bers of both par­ties in their dis­tricts. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors know that most of them will face no elec­toral con­se­quences for sab­o­tag­ing vot­ing rights in their high­ly ger­ry­man­dered districts. 

Look­ing ahead, Pep­per dis­cuss­es the threat this pos­es to the integri­ty of the 2022 and 2024 elec­tions. At Don­ald Trump’s urg­ing, many Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tors did what­ev­er they could to over­turn the results, join­ing in on Trump’s attack on Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, includ­ing try­ing to legit­imize fake sets of electors.

Pep­per argues that with four years to pre­pare, these Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors may be able to do in 2022 and 2024 what they could not do in 2020. 

In the final chap­ter of the book’s sec­ond sec­tion, Pep­per com­pares vot­er sup­pres­sion in recent years to the end of Recon­struc­tion and the begin­ning of the Jim Crow era. As Pep­per notes, back­lash­es to civ­il and vot­ing rights advance­ments for Black Amer­i­cans have his­tor­i­cal­ly been devastating.

In this chap­ter, David Pep­per exam­ines what could have been done to stop the destruc­tive effects of these regres­sive laws. He urges all who care about democ­ra­cy to respond force­ful­ly. “If you let up, or divide, the unit­ed and ded­i­cat­ed forces of Jim Crow will move in imme­di­ate­ly. They will take over.” 

The con­clud­ing chap­ters offer a detailed plan to pass robust laws pro­tect­ing vot­ing rights, strong­ly defend these prece­dents through fed­er­al enforce­ment, and chal­lenge any laws designed to attack these protections.

Lab­o­ra­to­ries of Autoc­ra­cy offers an excel­lent overview of the strug­gle to defend and expand vot­ing rights. Although some of the ear­ly chap­ters were a lit­tle redun­dant and Ohio-cen­tric, this is nev­er­the­less a very read­able book that it is at times aston­ish­ing and at oth­er times sober­ing. It was hard to put down. 

Read­ing this book, I felt like I was get­ting insid­er infor­ma­tion from a state law­mak­er about what is real­ly going on behind the scenes. 

The author is clear­ly ded­i­cat­ed to grass­roots work in his home state, writ­ing with sin­cere con­vic­tion and passion.

With dis­trict lines being redrawn and with fierce legal fights over new maps play­ing out in a host of swing states as the midterm elec­tions approach, this book pro­vides an excel­lent dis­cus­sion of how we got here and what we can col­lec­tive­ly do to turn away from the path towards autoc­ra­cy. If we want to ensure that deci­sions in this coun­try are made by the many instead of by a few, we sim­ply must be aware of and respon­sive to what is hap­pen­ing in our statehouses.

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