I’ve been in mourning since the election. I knew of the massive barriers of gerrymandering and the challenges of off-year turnout. I’d seen the polling and feared the impact of a rising national Republican tide. Still, I longed for, and believed in, a larger revolt by North Carolina voters.
Huge majorities were sustained in both houses. Republicans actually gained a seat in the state Senate, raising the tally to a dominating 34-16. They lost three seats in the House, but kept a potent 74-46 edge. The chief architect of the agenda of destruction was elected to the United States Senate.
To understate, the General Assembly was not rejected for its horror. And whether we actually meant to embrace the tea party legacy, we’ve opened the gate to years more of its operation. There’s no reason to believe legislative aspirations will become less brutal. I’d guess the opposite. Each bully seeks to outshine the last.
I’ve thought much about what this means for the thousands who have labored mightily to turn back the tide of cruelty. It’s a time to miss our mentors. Dan Pollitt, my friend and teacher, died in 2010. I remembered a conversation we had a decade ago, after another devastating election.
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We’d just returned George W. Bush to the presidency. He had tortured. He’d engaged in rendition. He’d unconstitutionally launched a war by unilaterally attacking a country in bold violation of international law and American honor. We knew this. We saw him do it. And we chose him again. That I could not abide.
I was assigned to speak to the ACLU a few days later – to talk about the election, explore what we ought to do. I told Dan I had no idea what to say, how to suggest we rebound from such a blow.
Pollitt cut me off. “There’s no doubt what we do,” he chided. We do “what people like us always do, we gird our loins and rejoin the fight.” We’ll find something “to go protest in the morning, so we don’t get out of practice.”
We fight because we believe in justice. A life’s work. A nation’s calling. We carry the torch of those who’ve gone before. We don’t have it in us to surrender. We don’t give up because the mission is daunting, the odds are long or the road is filled with peril. We fight because we refuse not to. The “arc of the moral universe is long,” and it “bends toward justice” – but we have to be the arc-benders.
Actually, Dan might not have said all those things. But he had the look in his eye. So we know we’re in it for the long, trying, relentless struggle. We had likely hoped for a quick and clean return to some semblance of decency. That’s not to be. We can wish the stakes weren’t so astounding – fighting for our very character. But they are what they are. Denial doesn’t make the monster recede. It surely doesn’t defeat it.
Our solace, our steel, lies in our purpose. As Barbara Jordan put it: “We believe in equality for all and privilege for none.” That each of us, regardless of background, has “equal standing in the public forum.” No matter our race or religion or sex or orientation or portfolio or region or disability. All of us. The command “represents what this country is it is non-negotiable it is indigenous to the American ideal.”
A government that repairs to its caucuses and produces policy after policy designed to serve only the wealthy, only the white, only the Christian, only the straight, only the male and only the adherents of a philosophy of privilege that, itself, mocks the American promise is a government that cannot be allowed to stand. Whether it takes a week or a decade, we’re required to reject it. We now know our toughened assignment. We embrace it. Given the embrace, we cannot lose.
Not long before he died, Robert Kennedy said, “The future belongs to those who can blend reason, passion and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and enterprises of the American democracy.”
His words could have been penned this morning. A personal commitment – born in reason, passion and courage. Our future depends on it. God knows our state does.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law. He doesn’t speak for UNC.