S4 E1. By Unpopular Demand

In statehouses across the country, private interests are pulling the strings.

Protestors rally in support of Black Lives Matter outside the statehouse in Columbus. An Ohio native, our guest on this episode says state capitals are where the country is facing its biggest threats to democracy — and where the people need to take their struggle for self-government. The fight won’t be easy. Big money from corporate donors is funneled through interest groups that then spoon-feed legislators an extremist right-wing agenda that favors mainly a small slice of the electorate: the rich, the white and the male.

Photograph by Nicholas Remick via Shutterstock.com

We launch Season Four this week on familiar turf: autocratic shenanigans right here in the United States. Join Will and Siva for a conversation with Ohio writer and politician David Pepper. His new book tells the sordid tale of how state legislatures across the country get slammed with unpopular bills. On everything from voter suppression efforts to “Stand Your Ground” laws, right-wing lobbying groups are flooding the policy pipeline so hard and so fast, the opposition can’t keep up.

In Dayton, Ohio, rallygoers at the March for Our Lives in the spring of 2018, protest “Stand Your Ground” laws that have enabled racially charged violence.

Photograph by Scott Cornell via Shutterstock.com

At their beck and call, Republican legislators are proposing bills they derive — or just plain copy — from templates created by ALEC and its ilk. Once familiar mainly to policy wonks, ALEC entered the national spotlight after a neighborhood vigilante gunned down Trayvon Martin in 2012. That’s because the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that ultimately allowed Trayvon’s killer to go free was one of the interest group’s pet projects.

Following in ALEC’s footsteps, other lobbyists have been using statehouses as laboratories for concocting radical new laws from antidemocratic ingredients. A former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, Pepper has seen this recipe play out firsthand. He says the decline of local media coverage — even as voting districts are increasingly gerrymandered — has paved the way for such dirty business. And while Pepper is optimistic that U.S. citizens can fight back, the political thrillers he writes in his free time, unsettlingly, keep coming true.

About our guest

David Pepper is a fifth-generation Cincinnatian and the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. He served on the Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, and has run for statewide office in Ohio twice. David is also a novelist who has published three political thrillers, with a fourth due out this year: A Simple Choice (Putnam, 2022). His most recent book is a work of nonfiction about the shadiness going on in statehouses all over America. It’s called Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call from Behind the Lines (St. Helena Press, 2021). Follow Pepper on Twitter @DavidPepper.

This episode was released on Feb. 2, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Pepper argues in Laboratories of Autocracy that the greatest danger to American democracy isn’t Donald Trump or his supporters in Congress, but corrupt legislative processes operating at the state level.

His timely — you might even say prophetic — thrillers follow investigative journalist Jack Sharpe as he uncovers attacks on democratic practices. They include The People’s House, about a Russian plan to sabotage swing districts, and The Wingman, in which Sharpe thwarts a dark-money plan to run a fake candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries.

In the final book of the series, The Voter File, Sharpe teams up with a graduate student to tackle the hacking of voting databases amassed by political parties.

From around the web

Trayvon Martin died at 17 while walking back to the home of his father’s fiancée in Sanford Florida. This image of Trayvon in a hoodie — pictured here at a protest in New York City’s Union Square, in 2013 — became an icon for racial justice.

Photograph by Lukas Maverick Greyson via Shutterstock.com

After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the Atlantic reported on the role ALEC has played in passing “Stand Your Ground” laws — and in the broader conservative agenda. Featured in that story, the Center for Media and Democracy tracks hundreds of bills that the lobbying group has proposed across the country.

ALEC’s recent efforts to push through restrictive voting measures in many states led some companies, such as Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer and FedEx, to withdraw their support for the organization.

The legislative steamrolling strategy that Pepper dissects for us in this episode also helps explains how Ohio almost banned the creation of municipal broadband networks that might compete with private internet service providers. Next week, we’ll talk broadband with UVA media scholar Christopher Ali.

Lopsided redistricting protects unpopular policies and the legislators who support them, but may itself be in danger as the people — and the courts — pay closer attention to this crucial decennial tradition in America. Ohio’s state Supreme Court last month struck down a Republican-proposed congressional map saying it was too favorable to GOP candidates.

Stacey Abrams speaks at the National Press Club luncheon on Nov. 15, 2019. The year before, she lost a close gubernatorial election in Georgia amid serious allegations of voter suppression by her opponent, Brian Kemp, then the state’s Secretary of State.

Photograph Al Teich via Shutterstock.com

Although they are years behind groups like ALEC and the Trump-favorite Honest Elections Project (which is anything but), well-funded progressive organizations are pushing back. One of them is Fair Fight, a national voting rights group founded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Of course, as the New York Times reported this week, Democrats used their own dark money to win the White House in 2020.

Communications scholar Joshua Darr blogged recently for FiveThirtyEight about the decline of state and local news coverage that has allowed so many extremist bills to pass unnoticed.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music, as always, is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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