It’s been a tough couple of weeks for democracy.
In North Carolina, the Republicans who control the General Assembly supported the arrest of the Rev. William J. Barber II, which led to his being banned from entering the State Legislative Building. The ban was based on the civil rights leader’s supposed trespassing in the People’s House while petitioning his government on behalf of the people.
The ones who are truly in the Legislative Building illegally are the Republican legislators. They are the beneficiaries of three elections that a federal court has found to be based on illegal, racially gerrymandered district maps that the Republicans drew up in 2011. That finding, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, means the majority is at best a collection of interlopers. At worst, they are imposters occupying the legislature and damaging the state’s reputation and its future.
Their work is hardly done.
The Republican majority approved a state budget last week that includes tax breaks for the wealthy that dwarf what is advertised as a tax reduction for low- and middle-income taxpayers. Meanwhile, public education and state services remain underfunded for a period that now extends back eight years to the recession.
Gov. Roy Cooper, who has spent 30 years in state government as a legislator and attorney general, said of the spending plan, “I think it may be the most fiscally irresponsible budget I’ve ever seen.” Of Cooper’s assessment, the Fayetteville Observer wryly commented: “There he goes again, understated to a fault. It’s all that Cooper said it is, and much worse.”
In addition to its general lack of vision and upside-down priorities, the budget includes a few perverse punishments for the Democratic governor, the Democratic attorney general and poor people who need legal help.
Under changes in the budget, the governor is restricted from spending on legal costs to defend his powers, the attorney general is obligated to defend the legislature right or wrong and his budget loses $10 million in funding, which may force the layoffs of more than 100 state lawyers who represent the public interest.
In addition, $1.7 million is cut from funds to provide legal services to the poor. The only entity with unrestricted legal funds and choice of options is the legislature, where Republicans have already spent more than $12 million paying private law firms to defend their adventures in gerrymandering, voter suppression and discrimination. They have lost almost every case.
After six years of the Republicans’ veto-proof control of the General Assembly, North Carolina is accustomed to having a legislature that acts more like an occupying force than a representative body.
But even for those who’ve learned to bear the burden of this legislature, the added weight of Donald Trump as president and the recklessness of the Republican-controlled Congress on health care is crushing the sense that the political system is still representative.
In the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled in secret to draw up legislation that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act despite polls showing most Americans now support it.
Passage of a Republican health care law will clear the way for massive tax cuts for the wealthy and massive cuts in Medicaid for the poor.
What do you call it when government stops representing – or even acknowledging – the popular will? Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, in his May 30 commencement speech speech at Brooklyn College, gave it a name. “We are seeing the results of how oligarchy functions right now in Congress,” he said.
The only cure for failed democracy is more democracy, Sanders said. “The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make, is to stand up and fight back – reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, and not just the 1 percent.”
Amazingly, the best hope for such a restoration has emerged from the Supreme Court, the very body that in recent years has done much to stifle the popular will by gutting the Voting Rights Act and upholding Citizens United.
The court has agreed to consider the problem at the root of the nation’s political frustration – gerrymandering. It has previously ruled against the drawing of district lines that violate the civil rights of African-Americans, but now it will look at whether the act of drawing lines for partisan advantage also undermines democracy.
With luck, and courage from the court, fairness and democracy may yet return to our legislative halls. Maybe the Rev. Barber will be let back in, too.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com