The Red States Experimenting With Authoritarianism

They’ve become laboratories of autocracy.

Illustration showing a red snake choking a blue column
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Sources: Getty; Shutterstock.

In 1932, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis applauded the role of experimentation within the states, calling them “laboratories of democracy” that could inspire reforms at the national level. Today, that dynamic is inverted, as some red states have become laboratories of authoritarianism, experimenting with the autocratic playbook in ways that could filter up to the federal government. American states are now splintering, not just on partisan lines, but on their commitment to the principles of liberal democracy.

Democracy requires more than just holding elections. But at a bare minimum, two qualities are nonnegotiable. True democracies must allow voters to determine who governs through elections, and must respect the outcome of those elections. Many Republicans at the state level are undercutting those principles.

Democratic deterioration is not a new problem in red states. Jacob Grumbach, a political-science professor at the University of Washington and the author of Laboratories Against Democracy, measured the democratic quality of American states from 2000 to 2018. He used 51 indicators, including gerrymandering, whether politicians were responsive to public opinion, long wait times to vote, and the availability of postelection audits to verify that the count was accurate. States that had been dominated by Republicans over the previous two decades, Grumbach found, became substantially less democratic. States dominated by Democrats and those with a divided government saw no such drop-off.

Since Grumbach published his findings, Republican attacks on the mechanisms of democracy have accelerated. When Democrats win at the ballot box, Republicans may attempt to neutralize their power. In Arizona, an elected Republican proposed allowing the state legislature the power to overturn the results of presidential elections. In Mississippi, white Republicans in the state House of Representatives established a parallel court system to cater to white neighborhoods in Jackson, usurping the elected judges put in office by the broader population, which is 80 percent Black.

Recently, the Tennessee House expelled two Black Democratic representatives who led anti-gun protests in the statehouse. The protests they led were disruptive, but the expulsions were wildly disproportionate and likely motivated by race: Republicans voted to expel the two young Black men, but not the older white woman who’d also participated. The attempt backfired, as both were swiftly reinstated, but that doesn’t change the fact that Republicans tried to undo the will of the voters over a minor transgression.

The botched effort in Tennessee is just one example of Republicans trying to invalidate elections by getting rid of Democrats who end up in power. In Georgia, Republican lawmakers recently passed a bill that would give them the power to remove elected prosecutors. And in Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis boasted about firing a Democratic prosecutor using a flimsy pretext. A judge who reviewed the firing concluded that DeSantis’s goal had been “to amass information that could help bring down [the prosecutor], not to find out how [he] actually runs the office.”

These tactics are layered on top of long-standing antidemocratic practices. Gerrymandering is a form of legalized election rigging done at the state level in which electoral districts are drawn to ensure that politicians choose their voters rather than having voters choose their politicians. Democrats are certainly guilty of drawing district lines in their favor in some states (Illinois, for example), but Republicans are substantially more guilty. According to the nonpartisan electoral forecaster Dave Wasserman, 152 congressional districts were drawn to help Republicans in the 2022 midterms, compared with 49 districts drawn to help Democrats.

When gerrymandering is extreme, most elections become foregone conclusions, extinguishing the foundational principle of democracy: competition. Five years ago, in Wisconsin, Republicans won just 44.7 percent of the vote in races for control of the state legislature. Yet Republicans won 64.6 percent of the seats. In North Carolina, state Republicans drew such skewed districts in the 2018 congressional elections that the GOP won 10 out of the state’s 13 districts, even though the party’s candidates earned just 50.3 percent of the statewide vote. In Georgia, a state that voted for Joe Biden and has two Democratic U.S. senators, the newly drawn district lines mean that 57 percent of State Senate and 52 percent of state House seats can be considered “safe Republican” seats. Barring a major political shift, Republicans will continue to easily control the legislature in a competitive state trending toward Democrats.

When such blatant electoral manipulation takes place in other countries, the U.S. State Department denounces it. Here, it’s just a legalized part of the American system.

Even where elections are competitive, Republican legislators are trying to make voting more difficult. Disparities in ballot access are long-standing and present in both red and blue states. Researchers who analyzed anonymous cellphone-location data have found that, on average, residents of Black neighborhoods wait “29% longer to vote and were 74% more likely to spend more than 30 minutes at their polling place.” These “time taxes” have a knock-on effect, because voters who face long lines become less likely to vote in subsequent elections. But overall wait times are worse in states controlled by Republicans; the worst performers in the 2020 election were South Carolina and Georgia.

Now Republicans are parroting Trump’s lies about voter fraud as a pretext to make voting even harder, in ways that disproportionately disenfranchise poor and nonwhite voters. Study after study has found voter fraud to be an infinitesimal problem. Republicans have nonetheless introduced 51 state-level bills that would put up obstacles to ballot access.

Beyond attacking elections, or trying to interfere with their results, Republicans are testing out different ways to wield power against democracy. In Florida, DeSantis is using his power to punish a private company that dared to criticize him. In Idaho, Republican lawmakers have made it illegal to help minors cross state lines to obtain an abortion, using government power to restrict freedom of movement. In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has said he “looks forward” to pardoning a man convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester; the murderer had previously texted a friend to complain about the protests and said that he “might have to kill a few people on my way to work.” The composition of Republican rising stars is worrying, too. In Oregon, members of the violent, far-right Proud Boys have secured leadership positions in local GOP bodies, making national-level extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene look moderate by comparison.

Democracy isn’t all or nothing; it can be measured on a spectrum. But if voters face “time taxes” to vote in uncompetitive, gerrymandered elections that entrench minority rule, and then have their elected officials removed from office or usurped by a new body created by Republicans—well, that’s not democracy. If states combine these tactics, they won’t be worthy of the democratic label.

On the political right, many have suggested that concerns about American democracy are alarmist. Previous attempts to capture the erosion of American democracy at the state level have been criticized for hyperbole. One effort to measure the quality of state-level elections resulted in several U.S. states scoring below Rwanda, an autocracy in which the dictator, Paul Kagame, was reelected in 2017 with 98.8 percent of the vote. That’s absurd.

North Carolina is certainly not North Korea. But millions living in red states have become guinea pigs, the subjects of Republicans experimenting with autocracy.