Having been a denizen of the Internet since it began, and of bulletin boards before that (yes, I am that old), I have long been aware of Godwin’s Law. Therefore, I have studiously avoided comparisons between Nazi Germany or Adolf Hitler and today’s politicians, even though sometimes the comparison is deserved.
And, I’ve also tried to be circumspect about throwing around the words “fascist” or “authoritarian” to describe conservatives. Both fascism and authoritarianism have distinct meanings and attributes, and using them as a general epithet against political opponents is the same lazy practice as Republicans calling all Democrats “socialists.”
Having watched this year’s General Assembly, from the opening rules changes to the passage of SB 150, I have decided it is time to pull one of these words from storage and apply it to the practices of the Republicans in Frankfort. That word is “authoritarianism.” And the Republican party in our state legislature has embraced it.
Wikipedia defines authoritarianism as “a political system characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting.” With that as a baseline, let’s look at the practices of the GOP members of the legislature.
The rejection of political plurality – The Repubs in Frankfort operate as a one-party system. They control all the committees, they control what bills get heard and voted on. They control the Legislative Research Commission itself, even though it is supposed to be non-partisan.
They pretend to work with Democrats when it is convenient for them, or when they think they can win brownie points with the public (or fool the public). But in private, they ignore Democrats completely, or actively attack them in ways both large and small.
They also ignore the political plurality of the state. They govern as if the state is one big right-wing conservative evangelical Christianist church. They write and pass laws to please just that one constituency.
The use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo – For years now, the annual legislative sessions have been used by Republicans as opportunities to attack and undermine any political opposition, especially unions, teachers, public employees, and the city of Louisville. If there is a way to harm a person or group that could be a threat to their holding on to power, that person or group is attacked, and if possible, sidelined.
Consider all the bills attacking unions. Consider the attacks on public education and teachers. Consider the moves to reduce the power and influence of Metro Louisville, and of Louisville’s school system. They pass these bills and make these attacks not because they are good for the state, but to get rid of anyone or anything they perceive as an enemy.
Reductions in the rule of law – It may seem a small thing to an outsider, but the ongoing changes in the rules in Frankfort to favor only the majority are one of the most glaring examples of GOP authoritarianism. They have changed the rules to limit debate – the only time Democrats can have their voices heard. They have gutted open records and open meetings laws, changing the rules so that no one outside their caucus knows what bills are going to be heard. They have completely ignored even their own rules, holding committee meetings without the required notices so they can bring up and ram through bills without organized opposition.
Then this year, they passed a rule that allows them to bypass the required three readings of a bill. They can now move a bill from first hearing in committee to final passage in a chamber, or even in both chambers, in a single day – something the authors of our state constitution clearly said was wrong.
In short, any rule or law that gets in their way is either changed to suit their needs, or ignored.
Reductions in separation of powers – The GOP super-majority in Frankfort hates that there is a Democrat in the governor’s office. But since there is, one of their main goals is to limit his powers as much as possible.
Many of this year’s vetoes were for bills that stick the GOP’s noses into the executive branch’s business. From overriding contracts, to cabinet appointments, to running the IT department, the Republicans continuously use their power to control anything and everything the executive branch does.
At this point, they have not gone after the judicial branch to the same extent. But if the GOP in Georgia is any guide, that will be next.
Reductions in democratic voting – The Repubs in Frankfort have not been as draconian in this space as those in some other states. (Such as, making it illegal to give water to someone standing in line to vote.) Many have noted that it is because, by and large, they haven’t needed to be.
But, there is one massive act of the Republican super-majority in our legislature that is a perfect example of authoritarianism in action: the recent redistricting.
It was obvious from the start that the Republicans were going to gerrymander as much as they thought they could get away with ... and beyond. They especially went after Democratic women, forcing many of them out. They gerrymandered Buddy Wheatley out of his seat in northern Kentucky, even as the area appears to be becoming more blue.
But the most egregious example is the ridiculous redrawing of the 1st Congressional District. Extending it to Frankfort because Jamie Comer has a house there was basically a big “F you” to the state. Why did they do it? “Because we can ... and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Which, in the end, is the essence of authoritarianism. And which is now the ruling political philosophy of the Republicans in Frankfort.
And if you disagree with my assessment, try this mental exercise: Imagine this legislature with Ron DeSantis as governor. Do you think the outcomes would be any different from what has happened in Florida?
It is time to call out exactly what has happened in our state legislature: One political party has become an authoritarian party, and will continue in that mode until they are either voted out, or until leadership arises in the party that rejects that approach.
And since almost all authoritarians find it impossible to let go of their power, our goal must be to call it out and fight it as long as the GOP practices it, and at the same time work to reset the balance of power in the state.
Authoritarianism is a drug. And right now in Kentucky, the GOP is addicted.