Home Opinion OPINION: Despair and hope for the state of our democracy in a...

OPINION: Despair and hope for the state of our democracy in a single day

One supposes that state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger really believed what he was doing and saying in 2009 when he and several other Republicans, including current House Speaker Tim Moore, sponsored legislation to end partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

Berger and his fellow Senate Republicans were serious enough about the measure they introduced to have named it in honor of a recently deceased colleague who had championed the same cause — a man known for taking principled if not always popular stances: the late Sen. Hamilton Horton of Forsyth County.

You might remember what happened next. The 2010 off-year elections came along and the GOP, buoyed by the political tailwinds that usually aid the party out of power in the White House (and the comparatively modest gerrymandering that Democrats running the legislature at the time had implemented), swept to power in the General Assembly.

Suddenly, longtime back-bench lawmakers like Berger were running the show and in no mood to put their newfound power at any risk.

Soon thereafter a powerful case of policy amnesia overtook Republican lawmakers and their conservative “think tank” allies on the subject of gerrymandering, and the rigging of elections that it enabled.

Initially, talk of establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission persisted for a while on the political right. Then the conversation shifted to handing redistricting over to legislative staff — a group hired and overseen by a Republican appointee. And then it just stopped altogether.

Today, partisan gerrymandering and the power for legislative majorities to wield it in a completely unfettered way has become akin to a faith for the GOP majority. Last December, their lawyers even told the U.S. Supreme Court that it was a power the Founding Fathers had intended to vest in them alone.

And last week, when the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court declared itself impotent to place any limits on the power — while simultaneously endorsing a discriminatory voter ID scheme and potential lifetime restrictions on the voting rights of low-income formerly incarcerated people — Berger took to the internet to slam those with the audacity to identify any check on election-rigging in the state constitution.

With a degree of venom matched only by his hypocrisy, Berger wrote: “For years plaintiffs and activist courts have manipulated our Constitution to achieve policy outcomes that could not be won at the ballot box. Today’s rulings affirm that our Constitution cannot be exploited to fit the political whims of left-wing Democrats.”

You got that? A politician who abandoned a supposedly principled stance on a central tenet of our democracy, and then shamelessly and relentlessly used every lever of power at his disposal for more than a decade to rig electoral outcomes, silence opponents, and enfeeble other elected officials while seizing their power, (and even to install his son and namesake on the Supreme Court) is purporting to lecture on the subject of “manipulating the constitution.”

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All in all, the rulings and bluster were enough to make a body fear for, and mourn the state of our democracy, and to wonder if all hope for reviving it – at least in North Carolina had passed.

And then, just a few miles away at almost the same moment the court was issuing its rulings, something happened to remind us that hope lives.

As NC Newsline’s Lynn Bonner reported, a young and courageous legislator from Tennessee named Justin Pearson addressed attendees at the 2023 NC Black Summit in Raleigh.

Pearson was himself recently the object of some constitutional manipulation when he and a colleague, Rep. Justin Jones, were expelled by the leaders of the Tennessee House for having had the temerity to have raised their voices alongside protesters who demanded action to curb gun violence in the wake of a Nashville school shooting.

Both lawmakers were quickly returned to the statehouse by the local officials charged with the duty. And as last week’s events — widespread national media acclaim, a White House audience to receive the President and Vice President’s thanks and blessings, a hero’s welcome in multiple locales — served to remind us, powerful and reactionary politicians have a long and not-so-proud tradition of unwittingly overreaching and sowing the seeds of their own demise, just when they seemed to be at their most unassailable.

Will Pearson, Jones and company unseat the hard right Republicans who dominate Tennessee politics anytime soon? Probably not.

But as is also evident from the example they’ve set and obvious fire they’ve lit under Americans of all ages who are sick to death of the kind of extremist lawmaking that’s practiced in the Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures, we might just be a lot closer to the end of the current dark era than the beginning.

And when the reactionary house of cards does collapse of its own weight in the not-so-distant future, we may well look back on the events of recent days and realize we were witnessing the moment at which the toxic right-wing tide crested and started to recede.

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast. Republished from ncnewsline.com.