Long Con: How the GOP is trying to end democracy from the inside
Investigate them and humiliate them
Welcome to a Thursday evening edition of Progress Report.
Looks like Christmas came early this year: Henry Kissinger is finally dead and Ron DeSantis got obliterated on national TV tonight.
(I generally don’t publicly celebrate deaths, but read this obituary of Henry Kissinger and consider that the Washington Post today ran a huge feature on his dating life back in the ‘70s. Evil thrives on undeserved deference.)
We’ve got a whole lot of news to discuss tonight — there’s so much to discuss, in fact, that I’m going to skip the intro and jump right in. We’ll start with the good news first, then the weird stuff, then the alarming stuff.
Note: The ceasefire is over and Israel has resumed its massive military operation in Gaza. The news broke as I went to publish this piece, so there will be further discussion where relevant in an upcoming newsletter.
Please consider a subscribing and/or donating to keep Progress Report afloat and sustainable. Far-right extremists are financed by billionaires and corporations, who invest in conservative outlets, think tanks, and law firms to advance their interests. We rely on forward-thinking readers like you. Please help us fight the good fight.
😌 🍾 Let’s kick off tonight with some good news: Dick Durbin finally decided to do his job.
The Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to authorize subpoenas of billionaire GOP mega-donor Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo, the architect of the right-wing takeover of the federal judiciary. The vote marks the first concrete step in a necessary investigation into the deep rot of corruption that has turned the Supreme Court into the Make-A-Wish foundation for a soft, deluded, reactionary elite.
That it’s happening eight months after the onslaught of revelations is outrageous and infuriating, but we’ll save that for another day.
A quick recap: Crow, a Nazi memorabilia collector, has been a prodigious patron of Justice Clarence Thomas — he paid for his kid’s education, his mom’s house, a giant RV, and many vacations, among other undisclosed gifts — while having a number of cases before the high court. Leo, at the Federalist Society and as the head of his own shadowy network, has sprayed hundreds of millions of dollars around right-wing organizations connected to all of the conservative judges.
Republicans on the committee threw a giant fit and walked out of the meeting when it became clear that Durbin wasn’t going to hold votes on any of their 177 amendments. Crow and Leo were just as petulant and promised to not cooperate with the subpoenas, which require 60 votes to enforce.
It’s fun to see these sniveling weirdos act indignant when they face even a hint of accountability; Leo got so mad that he uncorked one of the most ironic statements that I’ve ever read:
"Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats have been destroying the Supreme Court; now they are destroying the Senate,” Leo said, somehow maintaining a straight face. “I will not cooperate with this unlawful campaign of political retribution.”
It’s true, what they say: The right is starting to get better at comedy and it's making lefties nervous.
All that being said, Leo and Crow’s refusal to comply with subpoenas only makes it more obvious that the slightest bit of digging will uncover a wellspring of disqualifying corruption. Democrats can’t let conservative play by a different set of rules, even if they do their best to invent them at the Supreme Court.
The public drumbeat needs to continue in order to both turn this into a major campaign issue and put pressure on the current Supreme Court, which has shown a sensitivity to questions about its legitimacy and occasionally moderated its decisions, as was the case in Allen v. Milligan, which preserved what remains of the Voting Rights Act.
As we’ll discuss later a little further down in this edition of the newsletter, every bit of pressure on the Supreme Court right now makes a big difference, because if its far-right majority acts with impunity, we’re cooked.
🏆 ☀️ Gavin Newsom wasn’t the only person to school Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week. On Tuesday, my friend Thomas Kennedy prevailed in his legal fight against failing presidential candidate, forcing the guy whose PAC is named Never Back Down to back down, take a seat, and try in vain to smile.
Thomas sued the governor’s office and several other government entities after he was kicked out of one of DeSantis’s public events in June 2022. His crime? Asking a difficult question to the awkward, press-averse governor. Afterwards, Thomas discovered that he was on a secret list of troublemakers maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Inclusion on the list also meant that the state had put together a long dossier on Thomas, an activist and nonprofit advisor who is currently an elected member of the DNC (and contributor to this newsletter). Under the terms of an agreement with the state, Thomas received an unredacted copy of that dossier and is now once again permitted to attend the governor’s campaign events. The only thing he didn’t get was the opportunity to try the golf simulator that DeSantis took as a bribe at the beginning of his first term, but we’ll keep working on that one.
😬 🚨: Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler is under investigation for alleged sexual assault… accusations lodged by a woman who often joined Ziegler and his wife Bridget Ziegler, the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, in secret threesomes.
The details of the assault allegations are grotesque and disturbing, so to dwell on this story for too long risks seeming insensitive. At the same time, it’s essential to note that yet another pair of far-right moral scolds are not only bigots, but also hypocrites.
The Zieglers have played a key role in forcing a puritanical and homophobic agenda — Bridget was so deeply involved in passing the “Don’t Say Gay” law, she stood next to DeSantis when he signed it — yet in the privacy of their own home, they’ve regularly done things that would get them both fired from Florida public schools.
American democracy is in trouble.
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking assessment — far-right zealots, with the help of sitting lawmakers and the then-president, attempted to overthrow the government less than three years ago — but the the violence at the Capitol was a manifestation of only the most overt disdain for representative government. And whereas that effort failed to topple democracy with one furious convulsion, the professional right is carrying out daily attacks on American democracy, chipping away from the inside.
Now, it’s important to note that there are some states where the very opposite is happening. In fact, on Thursday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a landmark series of voting rights bills that expand access to the ballot. Michigan became the state that automatically registers returning citizens to vote after they leave prison, so long as they are eligible.
Elsewhere in the country, elected officials are actively trying to diminish access to the ballot and the issues that residents are permitted to vote on.
The New Issue With Ballot Initiatives
Over the past eight years, direct democracy has become pivotal conduit for progressive change. In many states, it remains the final option for protecting personal freedoms guaranteeing voting rights, and expanding medical care. Republicans have proven largely unable to defeat major initiatives at the ballot box, so they’re now using and abusing the power of the state to thwart initiatives and populist movements.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin became the latest elected official to attempt to stymie the democratic process on Tuesday when he tossed out a proposed constitutional amendment that would have protected the right to an abortion within the first 18 weeks of pregnancy as well as in the event of a medical emergency, when the mother’s life is at risk, or the fetus is not viable.
Griffin picked apart the proposal’s language, positing inane hypotheticals that suggested that his office would have interpreted the amendment in the most narrow way possible.
In one section of his response, Griffin questioned the meaning of “incompatible with life outside the womb,” a standard term in pregnancy care. He claimed that the term suggests that activists might “intend to cover more situations” than a fetus’s ability to survive outside the uterus, ignoring the very specific language that both preceded and followed the term in question:
“A fatal fetal anomaly means a fetal condition diagnosed before birth that, in the physician’s good faith medical judgment, is incompatible with life outside the womb and for which medical intervention would be futile.”
Any ambiguities taken from the term “fatal fetal anomaly” are entirely the work of deliberate imagination.
Please consider a subscribing and/or donating to keep Progress Report afloat and sustainable. We rely on forward-thinking readers like you. Please help us fight the good fight.
The coalition behind the amendment, the cheekily named Arkansans for Limited Government, said that it will work to address Griffin’s various inane objections and resubmit an updated draft. Time is of the essence; they can’t begin collecting petition signatures until Griffin approves the language, and Arkansas requires nearly 100k signatures from residents in at least 50 of the state’s 75 counties by early July to earn ballot placement.
In Nevada, it’s the judiciary that’s been on the frontlines of blocking voter-driven direct democracy. Nevadans for Reproductive Rights had its proposed initiative tossed by Judge James T. Russell, district court judge out of Carson City and the son of a former governor.
The initiative sought to protect total reproductive care, including the right to an abortion, prenatal care, postpartum care, childbirth, and various forms of birth control. Judge Russell said that such a list violated the requirement that ballot measures have a single subject.
“I’ve seen a lot of them over the years and in respect to this particular matter, there are too many subjects,” he said. “Not all of which are functionally related to each other.”
It’s unclear whether Judge Russell knows how the human reproductive system works, but he does seem eager to block ballot initiatives. Earlier this month, he tossed a proposed referndum that sought to give voters a say over whether the state provides $380 million in taxpayer money to subsidize a new baseball stadium in Las Vegas. Billionaire Oakland A’s owner John Fisher wants to move the team to Vegas, but is demanding public funding to do so.
The initiative, sponsored by the Nevada Education Association, is called Schools Over Stadiums, framing it as a choice between building the ballpark and providing funds to one of the nation’s lowest-ranked public school systems.
Thwarting the Popular Will
No political entity has been more actively dismantling direct democracy than Ohio Republicans, who in some cases openly discuss being scheming weasels.
Earlier this week, I outlined a new GOP bill that would bar Ohio law enforcement and other state employees from helping to enforce most federal gun laws. It’s a wildly unconstitutional idea, and just the tip of the iceberg for Buckeye State Republicans.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose earlier this month admitted that his office sought guidance from prominent anti-choice groups when rewriting how Ohio’s reproductive rights amendment would be described on the ballot. The admission, made at a local party event with GOP Senate primary candidates, was first reported on Wednesday.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, the Center for Christian Virtue, and Ohio Right to Life advised LaRose to insert more visceral language, like replacing “fetus” with “unborn child.” They also had him remove any mention of the other rights protected by the amendment, such as the use of contraception and fertility treatment.
The changes mostly passed muster with the state Supreme Court, though they did nothing to dissuade voters, who approved it with nearly 57% of the vote. As we’ve detailed before, Republicans have very publicly discussed trying to change or eventually overturn the amendment through legislation, continuing to prosecute old laws, or future amendments; with little over a week until reproductive rights are due to become officially protected by the state constitution.
Republicans have taken much more concrete steps to rewrite and water down the marijuana legalization initiative that voters also approved by a wide margin on Election Day. Because it was passed as a law and not a constitutional amendment, legislators have far more freedom to subvert the will of Ohioans. The proposals have touched every aspect of the initiative, from how the tax revenue will be spent (they want it to go to cops, obviously) to just how much individual freedom it grants.
State Senate President Matt Huffman justified any potential revisions by claiming that nearly 60% of Ohio who cast a ballot were too ignorant to know what they voted to support.
“Now did the voters, for example, know that there was going to be a preference for licenses to people that have formerly been convicted for selling drugs illegally? Probably not very many people thought of that,” Huffman said, misrepresenting the standard clause that’s supposed to ensure that communities hurt by the war on drugs are able to benefit from legalization.
A Rigged Game
Conventional political wisdom would suggest that it is unwise to openly denigrate a large majority of voters and publicly entertain violating the public trust, but conventional political wisdom assumes that lawmakers are subject to electoral accountability. In Ohio, that is no longer a risk that legislators have to consider.
This week, the state Supreme Court, now firmly under right-wing control, dismissed a legal challenge to the overtly gerrymandered legislative and Congressional maps that Republicans passed in September. In doing so, the court finally killed off the gasping remains of two constitutional amendments that were intended to prevent such unfair and antidemocratic districts.
In hindsight, this outcome was almost totally inevitable.
The amendments, passed in 2015 and 2018 with support from more than 70% of voters apiece, were trojan horses. Fearing that activists were likely to qualify their own amendments for the ballot, the GOP-dominated legislature twice preempted grassroots democracy with their own amendments, which they voted to place on the ballot.
The 2015 amendment, governing state legislature redistricting, called for a bipartisan commission to put together maps that required bipartisan support to implement. But there was a catch: Redistricting happens every ten years, but if the commission were to be unable to produce a consensus map, a simple one-party majority could pass a map that would last four years. As you probably guessed, they decided to stonewall bipartisan compromise and pass their own Frankensteined map for two cycles.
The 2018 amendment, which guided congressional redistricting, left the job to the General Assembly, requiring a three-fifths supermajority to pass any map. Republicans, thanks to an existing gerrymander, happened to have a supermajority, putting them on course to pass whichever map they pleased.
Democrats and voting rights activists sued, and the state Supreme Court, then led by a moderate Republican who abhorred gerrymandering, rejected every gerrymandered map proposed by the commission, which included Gov. Mike DeWine, as well as every map offered up by the General Assembly.
But in a show of reactionary solidarity, the US Supreme Court decided, for no obvious reason, to reinstate the gerrymandered maps for the 2022 election. Republicans again dominated contests in their laser-optimized districts, and a GOP takeover of the state high court made the rest fait accompli.
This fall, with the writing on the wall, Democrats on the commission voted to approve new gerrymandered maps out of fear that the next round might be even worse. This week, the newly right-wing state Supreme Court — which still includes Gov. DeWine’s son, who refused to recuse himself — cited Democrats’ reluctant and defensive approval of that map in dismissing a challenge by the ACLU.
The US Supreme Court has already essentially abandoned Ohio voters, and despite the decision in Milligan this summer, there’s a solid chance that the conservative justices will do the same to Americans nationwide soon enough.
It may happen in cases directly about the Voting Rights Act, including one in which the ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit just threw out 60 years of precedent to rule that private parties could not sue over violations of the VRA. It could also happen through decisions that dismantle government power and neuter the administrative state, which regulates and enforces policies ostensibly chosen by voters. The Supreme Court just heard arguments on the legitimacy of the SEC’s financial regulatory authority, and as absurd as it sounds, the conservative majority seemed open to using the case to open the floodgates to the sort of elite financial crimes incompatible with a functioning democracy.
We’ll have more on those issues in future editions of Progress Report.
Wait, Before You Leave!
Progress Report has raised over $7 million dollars for progressive candidates and causes, breaks national stories about corrupt politicians, and delivers incisive analysis, and goes deep into the grassroots.
This is a second full-time job, and I’m looking to expand. There are no corporations, dark money think tanks, or big grants sponsoring this work. It’s all people-powered. So, I need your help.
For just $5 a month, you can buy a premium subscription that includes premium member-only newsletters with original reporting and analysis.
You can also make a one-time donation to Progress Report’s GoFundMe campaign — doing so will earn you a shout-out in the next weekend edition of the newsletter!