I’ll admit it wasn’t the election I’d hoped for. An ample Republican majority remains in our General Assembly – where so much work has been done in the last eight years to wound us as a commonwealth and embarrass us before the nation. The United States Senate has been bolstered in its fawning submission. And, worst of all, huge swaths of the country rallied to Donald Trump’s banner, even after a closing campaign of overt racism and threatened autocracy. The combination can hardly leave one smiling.
The U.S. House of Representatives has been upended for its cowardice and purchase. Saying, in effect, we will forgo our obligations of oversight and accountability in the face of one of the most lawless regimes in American history — in exchange for a much coveted tax giveaway to millionaires didn’t carry the day. As James Madison put it, the checks of separated power, “may be a reflection on human nature, but they are necessary to control the abuses of government.” Trump is still with us. Most Americans decided, though, he’ll have to operate within the bounds of our constitutional framework.
And here in the Tar Heel State, engaged citizens successfully pushed back on the studied, relentless and pervasive abuse of legislative power. First, a courageous and brilliant student of the Constitution — one who has done much of the work of making the rule of law meaningful here in the last decade — was elected to the state supreme court. I’m confident Anita Earls will become one of the storied justices in North Carolina history. She’ll also help assure that the Constitution applies to all three branches of government.
Second, and as crucial, Democrats broke the supermajority hold on the General Assembly. That’s hardly, of course, a golden ticket. It won’t reverse the Republican Party’s full-throated war on people of color, on poor people, or on the Fourteenth Amendment itself. Our “pioneering work in bigotry,” as the New York Times puts it, is not repealed or undone.
But the free rein is likely over. An empowered executive and an independent state Supreme Court will assure that the arrogant displays of lawlessness to which we’ve become accustomed are potently curbed. The constant claims of ascendancy based on bold and peril-fraught assertions of the embodied “will of the people” will fall hollow. To paraphrase Churchill, this isn’t the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, “but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
And I delight to think, as well, of how these mammoth changes were wrought. They didn’t rise on the backs of superstar politicians – like Barack Obama, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum or Stacey Abrams – much as I love them. In the nation’s heartland, women pressed to say America stands for something, and it’s not this. And (largely) in Wake County, voters of all stripes simply declared, to the folks on Jones Street, “enough.” We’d rather not be involved with politics, they seemed to concede, but if you folks are going to let North Carolina be destroyed, we’ll step in. The “last, best hope,” as it’s said. Maybe we ought to let Lincoln replace Silent Sam.
North Carolina, I understand, is more conservative than I wish. It is less smitten with the demands of constitutional egalitarianism than someone like me would hope. But ordinary citizens putting their feet down and saying “behave” is something. Really something.
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.