In his brilliant little book, On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder offers citizens in a modern democracy 20 lessons from 20th century history. Snyder, a scholar of European history and totalitarianism, wrote the book in 2017 as a kind of “how too” guide for living in troubled times.
Some of the lessons — “believe in truth,” “contribute to good causes” and “defend institutions” — seem self-evident and universal.
But, one of Snyder’s lessons, particularly in light of the debacle that has unfolded over the past few weeks in Boise as the Legislature stumbles from one outrage to the next, seems downright urgent: “Beware the one-party state.”
The historian was writing with modern despots in mind, but he might have been thinking about the arrogant supermajority Idaho voters send to the Statehouse every January to tend to the public’s business. “The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start,” Snyder writes. “They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.”
The speaker of the House, Scott Bedke, or the Senate president pro tem, Brent Hill, would never, of course, admit to using their overwhelming majority to make “life impossible for their opponents.” But consider what they and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have been doing in the name of democracy.
The voters of Idaho passed by an overwhelming majority an initiative to improve the health care of tens of thousands of Idahoans. The voters acted, as their constitution provides, by the time-honored democratic process of advancing a measure directly to the ballot box, bypassing the Legislature. The process was ridiculously transparent. No one in the state who was paying the least bit of attention could have missed the effort to gather the signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive effort, well-documented every step of the way. The policy merits of the idea — expanding Medicaid coverage to more poor Idahoans — was debated right along with the signature gathering.
Nearly every politician in Idaho was forced to take a position on the issue. On his way out the door, former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter endorsed the idea. His successor, Gov. Brad Little, promised to implement “the will of the people.” The voters spoke to the tune of nearly 61 percent approval.
Rarely in recent Idaho history has such a significant policy decision enjoyed such widespread public support. And it is important to remember that all this voter-driven activity came only after the Legislature repeatedly failed to act.
Then came the push back, including a frivolous lawsuit from a shadowy ultra-right “think tank” that the Idaho Supreme Court laughed out of existence. Legislative Republicans devised every possible means to contain the scope of the policy voters approved, insisting on work and other requirements that have already been struck down by courts in other states.
Gov. Little all but admitting that this mess will cost the state a bundle to defend in court, then joined fellow Republicans in defying the clear will of the 61 percent who voted to expand access to health care for thousands of Idahoans. This is not honoring the will of the voters; it’s thumbing your nose at them.
Little displayed real political courage just days earlier when he killed the Republican affront to citizen-driven democracy that all but eliminated the ability to put an issue on the ballot. Little’s logic: A judge would ultimately decide the issue was both prudent and sound. He might have applied the same logic, and respected the voter’s will, by killing the Medicaid work requirement legislation. That would certainly have further prolonged an already egregiously long session, but it might also have forced fellow Republicans to send him a “clean” bill that implemented what voters approved at the polls just five months ago.
During this session of political dry rot, Republican lawmakers also sought to create a partisan advantage on the state’s independent redistricting commission, grabbed office space that has historically belonged to the full-time state treasurer so they can create additional offices for themselves, prevented photographs of a House session that would have allowed reporters to identify lawmakers who wouldn’t otherwise have their votes recorded and had the state police mark off a public meeting room as off limits to the public.
As this was written, some GOP lawmakers were scheming to resurrect their anti-initiative revenge on voters’ legislation. In an absolutely unprecedented move, they sliced the measure Little vetoed just days earlier into four separate bills, hoping apparently that they might force the governor’s hand a second time.
The juvenile games may have reached the height of absurdity even by the standards of this legislative session when a majority of Republicans on the House Education Committee refused to attend a meeting where their chairman wanted to introduce legislation dealing with the school funding formula. Such are the antics of a one-party state where most legislators rarely face political accountability. They behave as they do because they can. It seems hardly a stretch to say this has been the worst legislative session in memory.
The overwhelming Republican Legislature is no longer content to marginalize the often-beleaguered Democratic minority — the redistricting move was clearly designed to target the growing legislative advantage Democrats have accumulated in Ada County — and they openly and blatantly work to punish their constituents.
This binge of partisan nonsense should be placed squarely at the doorstep of Bedke and Hill. They have either lost control of the mechanics of legislative operations or they have been content to stand by as the inmates took over the asylum. Either way, the GOP majority has demonstrated unmitigated disdain for governing and flaunted their responsibility to citizens.
And this is all a piece of one-party rule, an arrogance bred of entrenched, concentrated power, a hubris drawn from the privilege of majority.
The lesson of this legislative session is simple: One party rule isn’t democracy, but it surely is a license to abuse democracy. Left unchecked, the one-party state will treat its voters even worse next time.
(This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune on April 12, 2019.)
Visit my author website for information and events related to my new book – Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana.