There’s a booming literature on the erosion of democracy in America, as well as around the world, but David Pepper’s book “Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines” stands out as arguably the most important for three reasons: It brings the subject down to earth, connects democratic erosion to corruption and the decline in America’s quality of life, and provides a wealth of ideas about how to fight back to protect democracy.
The book’s subtitle is well-earned. Pepper is a former city councilman, mayor, county commissioner and head of the Democratic Party of Ohio, as well as a lawyer who has won important battles defending democracy in court. This is no armchair account — it reads more like a well-organized set of field notes from battles seen first-hand.
Perhaps most significantly, those battles have surprisingly little to do with Donald Trump. In an essay in “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” therapist Elizabeth Mika described tyrannies as “three-legged beasts,” supported by the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole. In my review of that book, I quoted her on the last of the legs:
Tyrants do not arise in a vacuum. … It takes years of cultivation of special conditions in a society for a tyranny to take over. Those conditions invariably include a growing and unbearably oppressive economic and social inequality ignored by the elites who benefit from it, at least for a time; fear, moral confusion, and chaos that come from that deepening inequality; a breakdown of social norms; and growing disregard for the humanity of a large portion of the population and for higher values.
Pepper’s book provides a detailed, nitty-gritty explanation of how the general conditions Mika describes have been created in Ohio and many other states across America. And when Pepper writes about how to fight back, it’s about fighting back against the conditions that made Trump possible, if not inevitable. Of course Trump himself remains a danger, but Pepper’s book provides a roadmap for action that addresses the roots of the problem. This conversation with David Pepper has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with your title. What’s the story?
It was funny — it was when I thought of the term that the book came to me. I was going to tweet the words out, “You know, these states are no longer acting like laboratories of democracy, but laboratories of autocracy.” I didn’t send the tweet, because the minute I wrote it I thought, “Boy, there’s a lot more to say than this tweet.” And everything flowed from that.
Obviously it comes out of this age-old term that Justice Louis Brandeis made famous but that many have used, a very idealized notion of states doing good things that then become models for the country. Clearly that’s been the case sometimes. But as I argue in the book, in our history sometime it’s been the exact opposite. That’s how we got Jim Crow. States have enough power that in the wrong hands they can do great damage, and the point of the title was to say that’s what’s happening now in very stark ways.
But both words matter. “Autocracy” matters, as these states are hacking away at pillars of democracy that could lead to autocracy. But the “laboratories” part matters too, because they’re always learning, they’re always improving. So they are functioning as laboratories. Until you start adding some accountability and pushing back, they’ll just keep going. So my hope is that “autocracy” wakes people up, but “laboratories” is a really important part of that title because it explains how they operate.
The first story you tell in your book is about a horrendous traffic jam caused by an Ohio secretary of state who tried to make voting more difficult in 2020 by limiting ballot drop-boxes to one per county. Why begin there?
I’ve been fighting the voting rights battle in Ohio for a number of years. The worst is still the purging of voters, but to have a secretary of state intentionally cause long traffic jams for the form of voting that he knew minorities and Biden voters were using, and lying over and over again about what the law actually, was such a troubling thing. And this was not your right-wing, Trump-type secretary of state. He had held himself out as more moderate.
So I tell the story because you look at the traffic jams that his one-drop-box-per-county policy created, and anyone with a commonsense response would say, “Don’t ever do that again.” But in a world of “laboratories of autocracy,” as I tell in the story, the state legislature of Ohio, seeing those jams, began pushing for bills to have traffic jams forever by making that not just a policy decision, but state law. And what do we see at the same time? States around the country looked at those traffic jams and saw the effect on — let’s be clear — Black voters waiting in long lines. So now we have the same effort in other states to minimize drop boxes and to do what happened here: Put the drop boxes where people are already voting early in person, which creates the maximum congestion possible. So it’s a great example of how they behave as laboratories against democracy.
As you lay it out, the heart of the problem is the relative invisibility of state representatives, combined with their great power, which the public may not be aware of. Two questions: Why are state legislatures so powerful? And why is there so little awareness?
It’s a the toxic combination: great power and total anonymity, at least for the average citizen. The power comes all the way back, from the founding. State legislatures were given a lot of power over our day-to-day lives — economic policy, energy policy, criminal justice, education, the things that we care about. Statehouses have a huge effect on those.
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But in our system the Constitution and our overall balance of powers also give statehouses enormous power over not just state elections but federal elections. They draw the district lines, as we’re seeing right now. They set the rules of elections. They have control, to some degree, over how the Electoral College is calculated. It’s a huge amount of power. It’s something James Madison worried about: My gosh, we’re giving statehouses a huge amount of power. If they’re in the wrong hands, undemocratic hands, they can threaten our entire nation’s democracy.
What about the lack of awareness?
Most people can’t name their state representative. They don’t know what’s happening in their capital city. Very few of the things that are happening are covered. You only have so much bandwidth as a citizen, so you know the president, the governor, maybe your congressman and your mayor. These people get lost anyway: the capital city is normally some distance away, these elections don’t get nearly the attention. It just isn’t on the radar.
And journalism is eroding too. You used to have more robust statehouse bureaus that would cover the ins and outs. You had local papers in the small towns and big cities. It all adds up to very low information about these places that are a source of great power. For those wanting to do damage, it’s exactly what they want.
You write, “If the average voter doesn’t know or care what state representatives can do, insiders and interests know exactly what they can do. That’s dangerous.” So what are some examples?
In Ohio, you see everything from massive subsidies given to the right players, and people getting in line for “state business,” putting that in quotes — I talk about for-profit charter school scams in Ohio — who have figured out that they can get into the revenue stream, pull out hundreds of millions or more. You see individual legislators able to provide preferential tax treatment: The payday lenders got a sweetheart policy when they were helping certain legislators. I walk through all the ways that that these legislators can just give huge favors.
The general theme of these places, outside of extremism and anti-democracy, is a massive transfer of public assets and resources to private insiders. Public school dollars go to the private school donors who are starting scam for-profit schools. In other states, It’s the privatization of the energy grid, so in Texas they couldn’t even keep things going in the wintertime. Small towns not getting any infrastructure, because public dollars have been raided by the state to give out as tax cuts at the very high end.
If you add it all up, there’s a massive movement of public resources and dollars to private insiders. That’s why one thing that comes with broken government is a rapid decline in public outcomes. In Ohio, we’re living it. A great state is finding itself ranked last or close to last in everything from higher education attainment to health care. It’s because their M.O. with the statehouse is keep the private people happy and use public resources to do it, year after year.
I’d meant to ask you about how the decline in the quality of life is tied to the erosion of democracy. That’s something that’s completely disconnected in the national discourse. We’ve been hearing that Democrats’ focus on voting rights takes away attention from kitchen-table issues, for example. But that’s not the case on the ground, is it?
My book is trying to say that everyone suffers from this. It may in the short term feel good, if you have a majority. But as I explain later in the book, towns are dying because of the privatization of everything. There no winners from this, long-term. Everyone loses when you lose your democracy. When you go to small towns in Ohio that are largely Republican, they are suffering as much from lack of democracy as larger cities. Because they’re not getting the health care, the infrastructure, anything else they need. And so ending gerrymandering actually would lift long-term outcomes in all these places, because these people would all of a sudden have to compete as well. They couldn’t just give everything to the private players without any accountability, which right now is what they’re doing.
Another category you discuss is overturning local governance. That’s where the anti-democracy aspect blatantly comes to the fore, preventing people locally from passing laws. Could you expand on that?
Statehouses are the Achilles’ heel of national governance. When local governments who are more attentive to public concerns pass laws about gun violence, for example, the statehouses have the ability to stop those local governments from being responsive. What they’ve done in Ohio on issue after issue — whether it’s raising the minimum wage or gun reform — is that if the city of Cincinnati or the city of Cleveland or someone else tries to do something on those issues, they then pass a law that — by a misreading of Ohio law, I would say —allows them to stop any efforts to deal with that issue at a local level. So it’s undemocratic in another way: Don’t reflect your citizens’ views at the state level and also don’t allow local governments to represent their citizens either.
Just to be clear, on almost every issue I’m talking about they are doing the opposite of what their states actually want. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Ohio voted for Trump by eight points. This is a state that supports common sense gun reform. This is a state that supports Roe v. Wade. It’s a state that supports doing something on climate change. I can show you the polling on that. But the statehouses are basically places that, by protecting themselves through election rigging, can put in place deeply unpopular policies and never worry about being held accountable.
It’s not just a problem with the special interests inside the state with help from the national GOP. There’s also national organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the NRA and others.
These national players, the Koch Brothers, ALEC and others have weaponized the weakness of statehouses to serve their national agenda. They started out doing that with social issues, but then figured out it can be done, with even greater effect, on their economic interests. I go through how they’ve been crushing rural broadband for years: They don’t want local governments to do it because they want someday to do it. The way I describe it is that they’ve privatized the legislative process.
So many of the laws that are being passed — attacking voters, gerrymandering, the abortion laws like in Texas — are being cooked up in ways that are shared all across the country. And every time one doesn’t succeed, they learn from it and correct for it, and then other states will do the corrected form. And every time one of their approaches does succeed, other states will then model from it. So they’ve turned this into a national effort that people should find very worrisome.
One thing you talk about is how how people can go through a whole legislative career and never really have a competitive election, beyond maybe winning their first primary. What do people need to know about that?
It’s so much worse than people realize. In Ohio we have a 99-person statehouse, and Republicans have rigged it so that they’ll have somewhere in the low to mid 60s of seats, no matter what. In 2018, it was 50% Republican, 49% Democrat statewide and they still had a supermajority of seats, and 60 of those seats have averaged a double-digit win, most of those by 20 points or more. So a strong majority of these people have never been in an election that you and I would say was a real election. Maybe they won a primary at one point, but many were appointed, and never even had the primary.
People just don’t understand how bad it is. We’re talking about, for the first time since back before the civil rights era, people whose entire existence in power has been devoid of democracy. They haven’t talked to swing voters, they’ve never worried about the next election. You literally have an entire generation of people in charge of statehouses who have never experienced democracy the way I did when I ran and won my races.
Everything they’ve done in this world absent democracy is the opposite of what you do in a robust democracy to succeed. They help private interests, get close to the line in terms of corruption, if not over it. They get more and more extreme to avoid a primary. There are the terrible public outcomes that we talked about. Every one of those things works just fine in their world, whereas in a world of real democracy it would guarantee you lose your election.
That Texas law on abortion is extreme, it’s deeply unpopular. If you were in a fair district, you would lose. That happens on guns and everything else. The point is these people in a non-democratic world are acting a certain way, and if they were in a real democracy they’d lose for sure. So what are they gonna do, forevermore? Keep that real democracy from arising, because that would mean they’d lose their power. It’s gotten so much more warped than I think even Karl Rove would have imagined 12 years ago, when he rigged these districts. We’re talking about a completely different mindset than most people think about with democracy.
This leads into something else I wanted to ask about, how they have increased power in part by taking it away from governors, secretaries of state, from the independent judiciary. What’s happening here that don’t people realize?
This gets back to how much power they have that’s hidden. They have levers both political and budgetary, and many can override vetoes, That’s allowed them to run over the likely moderating influences of statewide officials. To win as governor in Ohio in the past you had to be more moderate, more like George Voinovich or Bob Taft. You weren’t a right-wing nut. People who run for those offices try to be more moderate, and they get run over by the statehouse.
Our current governor tried to be reasonable on COVID for a few months, but they stopped everything he tried. They almost impeached him. Now he’s as irresponsible as any of the others because the statehouse basically has too much control over the key functions of government. So statehouses end up being able to to run roughshod over governors, over the people the public actually knows. They don’t realize that the unknown statehouse member, in the end, is trumping the governor again and again.
Recently, Democrats have done a very good job and won three of the last four Supreme Court races in Ohio. I’m proud of this. What did the legislature do? A few months ago they changed the rules of how you elect justices, to add party ID to the ballot, on the thinking that if Trump’s on the ballot and every judge’s party is on the ballot, then they can’t lose.
So they change the rules to undermine other statewide officials. After Democrats won North Carolina in ’16 and they won Michigan and other states in ’18, and even after this Raffensperger guy in Georgia stood up to Trump, what happens? The legislature immediately starts attacking the powers of those other officials, obviously if they’re Democrats, but even if they’re a Republican that doesn’t agree with them. We saw that again in Georgia where they stripped the secretary of state’s power away.
They’re not only gerrymandering and being extreme for themselves, they’re literally going after any threat to their power that arises, be it state courts, governors of either party, or other officials like secretaries of state. It’s truly disturbing behavior.
As you make clear, in Ohio there was the Tea Party wave of 2010, in reaction to the Obama coalition, where they took action to undermine that coalition’s electoral power, and similar things are happening now in response to the 2020 election.
It’s why I resist when people say, “The Big Lie is making statehouses act crazy.” No — they’ve been doing this long before the Big Lie. When there’s an election they don’t succeed in, they learn from their failure and then do everything they can to change the thing that cost them that election. It’s not just about the presidency, it’s about their own self-preservation.
In 2008, after the Obama coalition in Ohio won the election for Obama, it also won Democrats the statehouse. That really peeved them. They had gerrymandered the statehouse and Obama comes in with this huge coalition of urban young voters, electing Obama and elects a Democratic statehouse. The minute they have a chance in 2011 to tear apart that coalition — not by a good campaign, but through changing the laws — they do it. They’re purging voters left and right, and despite huge errors in the purging process, they never stop. They attack early voting again and again. For years they targeted the key constituency groups that made up the coalition that had defeated them, and by 2016 it was clear just how well that worked.
I go through it in the book. The margins of victory in the large counties that made sure that Obama won — particularly the ones around Cleveland — were dramatically reduced because of how many fewer voters were actually registered by the time they were done with their purging through 2016, and curbing early voting in what was called Gold Week, where you could register and vote at the same time. Tens of thousands of voters were impacted there. Hillary Clinton may have lost Ohio for a lot of reasons, but it made her journey in Ohio far more difficult that they had taken the legs out of that Obama coalition.
So they learned their lesson for 2020, same thing. Many people voted early, using drop boxes. Drop-box voters were largely voters of color, largely Biden voters. What do they do? Same as 2011, they immediately target the way that those who vote against them vote. Get rid of drop boxes or add the kind of requirements that led to the traffic jams here. They will do everything they can to isolate what cost them an election and change the laws so it won’t hurt them the next time.
That’s exactly what they’re doing with Jan. 6. That was another failure. What are they gonna do? Figure out why they failed. They have three years to fix it. They’re going to go about fixing it through statehouses.
Right. That’s already well under way. How would you describe what it looks like?
I think it’s a combination of things. The bottom line is, here’s what it won’t look like: people storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2025. What did they learn about Jan. 6? It was too chaotic. It was too late. It looked too illegitimate. The key to all this is that it has to look legitimate for them to really win. Storming a building does not look legitimate.
But what were they right about? That state legislators play a big role when it comes to the Electoral College. Not just through through traditional voter suppression, in rigging these districts through gerrymandering. They can also try different ways to maximize their chance of winning the electoral college long before you get to Jan. 6 so it looks legitimate, unlike Jan. 6 did last year.
One thing that happened after 2012 is that they proposed — of course, only in the states where it would benefit them — that you calculate the Electoral College based on congressional district, not the overall popular vote. That would flip Michigan, in a world of gerrymandered districts, at least, basically superimposing gerrymandering onto the Electoral College count. Wisconsin would also be a great example. It’s a very gerrymandered congressional map that would take a state where a Democrat wins overall but if you go to the congressional districts, Republicans win the electoral vote majority. There is some precedent for that right now, because you get votes in Maine and Nebraska out of congressional districts. There’s also a potential legal challenge going back to the one person, one vote principle. But that’s something they’ve already talked about and there have been bills proposed in some states to do that.
That’s something we’ve seen floated in the past. I actually wrote about it in 2014. But there are new and even wilder ideas you talk about.
This was fringe only a couple years ago, the idea that legislators can basically do whatever they want when it comes to the Electoral College. If there was a close election, and they claimed, like Trump tried to do, that it was illegitimate, the legislature could simply say, “We think that’s the wrong result, we’re going to change the outcome.” If you read some of these new Supreme Court justices’ thinking, going back to Clarence Thomas in Bush v. Gore, that was sort of what this John Eastman memo was about: A state legislature can step in and determine the Electoral College vote, and no one can challenge it. I guarantee you, that sort of legal thinking is currently being circulated around the states, and some are pushing it forward as law itself, and potential secretaries of state are running on it.
So they’re going to do the traditional stuff. But they’re also going to do everything they can to figure out this Electoral College stuff again before you have a vice president counting the votes on Jan. 6. That’s why we need to be ready for the next battle. I’m glad we honored and thought seriously about the anniversary of Jan. 6, but the best way to think about it is to stop the next version, which will be far more sophisticated than what we saw one year ago.
That’s a good lead-in to talking about the third part of your book, which is about ways of fighting back. And you start with talking about the Guarantee Clause, which not enough people know about.
It’s the only part where I risk being academic. My goal was to make sure this is very readable, but every single thing I just talked about was of great concern to the founders. I know some people will say, “Well, the founders did terrible things,” and yes, they did. But they also wrote the Constitution. They thought “rich interests” or monarchical interests would take the very powers I described in statehouses and use them to take over the country. They were so worried that they put in the Constitution something called the Guarantee Clause, which literally says, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.” It’s in the same area as protecting against foreign invasion. Meaning the federal government must step up and protect that every state in this country has essentially what we call today a small-d democratic government.
To me, that should shape what happens in Congress. This is not just some other policy debate. When you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States as a U.S. senator or House member or president, you are taking an oath to guarantee that every state in this country has democratic governance, just like you’d stop a foreign invader. That’s why when I watch this debate over the filibuster, it shapes the debate. “Shall” is the strongest word in law, “guarantee” is about as strong as it gets.
So when I watch these people fuss about, “Well we we can’t do it unless a bunch of Republicans do it,” no! Your oath is your oath. You took an oath to uphold the Guarantee Clause, which means if there are states in this country who are falling away from democracy — and many of them are, like mine — you have to do something about it, or you’re violating your oath to the Constitution. There is no better grounding to carve out the filibuster for voting rights and democracy than the Guarantee Clause. It’s telling you that, as a senator, you have a duty to protect democracy.
So you have like 30 steps in terms of things that can be done, and that’s too many for us to go into here. Pick one or two themes, because there are some echo in different steps in different ways.
I read a lot of books. and I normally put them down and they might have been interesting but I don’t do anything. So I really wanted to say, “If you put this book down and don’t do anything different, I’ve failed.” I try to break this down into not just the big stuff but something people can do every single day in their corner of the world to lift up democracy, because that’s what it’s going to take.
I start with the federal stuff and it’s essential, but not enough, that the federal government protect voting rights. The Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate right now does so much. I also say the federal government has to do some other things that I won’t go into here, but there’s no protection against corruption in states are locked in by one party, so we need a lot more corruption enforcement from the feds in states like Ohio. A lot of the way democracy is being attacked is actually through substance, like that crazy law in Texas. I think we need to federalize rights that are getting caught up in these antidemocratic efforts, be they labor rights, be they Roe v. Wade.
But then then I’m going to the next level down, which is not through law, but politics. I believe we have to really rethink politics right now, and those for democracy — and I don’t think that’s only Democrats, although Democrats are the big part of it — have to reorient our thinking. This is a long battle for democracy, the way that John Lewis and the suffragists thought about it way back when. It’s a long battle.
What does that entail?
It should dramatically change how we fight that battle. We will lose that battle if all we do on our side is fight in swing states every couple of years for certain Senate seats and Electoral College votes, while they’re fighting democracy in 50 states every year. We have to rethink our approach, to do what they’re doing. Democracy must be protected in every state, every year, in every office that has some lever over democracy. We have to make that adjustment.
That sounds hard, and one thing we must do is decide what resources must follow that adjustment. If you took a rounding error of the billion dollars spent to win a presidential election, for example, and divided that up among 50 states over four years, you would actually have serious investment in those statehouse races and other races. Now my guess is some of those big donors would say “This is crazy. We can’t do that and not give to the presidential race.” And my answer would be, “That’s what the Koch brothers did, and it worked.” Not only will you protect democracy much more effectively, you’ll do better in the presidential race down the road as you built up some support.
That’s already been proven in Georgia, hasn’t it?
Stacey Abrams lost in 2018, but remember her speech where she didn’t concede, but she acknowledged she had lost? She said “We made progress,” and people probably looked at her and went, “What? You didn’t win!” Well, she knew she had registered more voters and inspired more voters — every door-knock was a new voter excited. She was right, and two years later Georgia was blue. Stacey Abrams has thought about democracy as a long game in Georgia her entire life, and that’s why she succeeded. She didn’t give up on everything after one bad cycle. She knew it was a long game.
A long game also means that individual candidates at the statehouse level, for example, even if they lose are contributing, and they need to be rewarded and praised for that. Too often we let a candidate run in a bad district and when they lose we walk away. If it’s a long game and they’re on the side of democracy, they need to be celebrated. Their run could in the long run be the difference in lifting other candidates. I go through many examples of how that happens.
In a big-picture frame, there’s a lot of disagreements to be had on a lot of issues, but don’t let disagreements on those issues lead to civil wars among those who all support democracy. One of the things I go through in the book is that so much of what I’m talking about are lessons learned from what led to Jim Crow. Going into Jim Crow, a lot of people who agreed on stopping things in the South — stopping the KKK and the resurgence of white supremacy — let all their disagreements on other issues get in the way of that, and they ultimately lost.
My point here is, if there are Republicans we disagree with that support democracy, welcome aboard. We’ll figure the other stuff out later. But if you’re for democracy, we need to work together. That’s why I’ve actually really enjoyed — for all the criticism, the Lincoln Project has been very good at spreading the word about what I’m trying to say. That also means that progressives and moderate Democrats, yeah, we disagree on the issues. But if we’re on the same page on democracy, to unify there is much harder than any disagreement you allow to get between you.
I worry that we’re going to get into 2022 and we know the Senate seats and House seats are important, but if we don’t do everything else we’re not getting to the root cause, which is the statehouses, the most undemocratic institutions that eating away at everything else.
There’s new talk of, “Well, we won’t pass a voting rights act, but we’ll do the Electoral College Act.” If we fall for that, it’s because we’re not thinking about the long game. If we say, “Yeah, we’ll correct for the presidential election, but we’ll let you get away with all the attacks on voting rights at the state level again,” that would again be a perfect example where the other side is protecting their long game, but we fall for the thing that deals with what we’ve always cared about, almost blindly and solely, which is the presidency. Not seeing the long game gives them another massive victory.
You conclude with a chapter on what individuals can do. As you describe it, there’s quite a lot.
Each person and organization, I believe, needs to figure out how they can add to their own personal mission statement or their organizational mission statement how, in everything they do every day, they try to lift democracy. Add that to your New Year’s resolution. If there are companies that are helping democracy, not hurting it, spend your resources there. Don’t go around the paywall if there’s a state paper that’s covering the statehouse well. Thank God! You’re lucky they’re there. Subscribe! Keep them going! Reward those who are lifting democracy!
If you’re in Georgia or Ohio, get involved in registering voters. If you run a homeless shelter, are you registering everybody who comes to your shelter every time they come through there? If you’re the mayor of the city and you run rec centers and health clinics, are you registering people? They’re attacking your voters through purging. You have an obligation to lift those voters up. Everyone can play a role. We know that there are people attacking democracy every single day. We love that we have people like Stacey Abrams out there protecting it. But we can’t we can’t leave it all to her.
It also means figuring out who your state representative is and never letting a state rep going unchallenged, especially if they’re attacking democracy. There’s a whole array of things everyone can do to push back for democracy. They may just think it’s bigger than them, but there’s steps that everyone can do, and if we all did them together it would make a massive difference.
I like to end by asking, what’s the most important question I didn’t ask? But in this case I’m aware of so many. I’d rather ask if there’s one more thing you’d like to emphasize.
Well, the other thing we all can do is wake other people up to it. I’ve gotten so many responses to my book like, “Oh my God, it’s a lot worse than I realized!” The more you can educate everyone you know — in your family, on your bandwidth — please do it. Because I’m worried sick that people just aren’t seeing this for what it is. If you think it’s bad, the truth is, it’s worse than you can actually see.