Promotional image for Laboratories of Autocracy
Promotional image for Laboratories of Autocracy

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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