What the election results mean for progressives

voteThe three guest speakers who joined Chris Fitzsimon at today’s NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon delivered mostly optimistic messages about the long-term electoral prospects for progressives in North Carolina in the years ahead. For a variety of reasons — history, voter attitudes on the issues, improved organizational structures to name a few — Tom Jensen, Carol Teal, and Dan Blue III remain quite positive about the future. (We’ll post a video of the event in the coming days.)

That said, there’s no denying that there were some troubling and discouraging developments on November 4 — both in the elections results themselves and in the frustrating apathy of many potential voters who might have participated. In this vein, a regular NC Policy Watch contributor, Prof. Charles Beem of UNC Pembroke, recently authored the following election post mortem that is decidedly less optimistic.

Troubling takeaways from the election
By Dr. Charles Beem

There are a lot of disturbing takeaways from the recent election results. For progressives, Thom Tillis’ narrow victory and the stronger-than-ever, gerrymandered majorities in the General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegations were enough to make one feel as if the energetic Moral Monday protests and organizing efforts of the past couple of years have produced precious little effect.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that it is clear today that a critical mass of citizens simply do not seem to care who gets elected to public office, while a highly motivated minority, whose hatred of President Obama defies a rational explanation, are the tail wagging the dog of contemporary America.

The day after the election I made the mistake of asking the eighteen students in my World Civilizations class how many of them voted last Tuesday. The answer was none, even though (or perhaps because, in part) North Carolina’s voter repression law had severely circumscribed their ability to vote.

Scary, right? What is even more chilling is that earlier in the semester this same class read the book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” in which author Thomas Cahill persuasively attributed the fall of the Roman Empire (an empire plagued by structural decay, grave economic disparity between rich and poor, and barbarians at the gates — sound familiar?), to the fact that the Roman people ultimately did not care enough to intervene. Instead, they allowed the affluent to drive their civilization into the ground simply for their own short term economic benefit. Sad to say, not a single student made the critical connection between the lessons of history and their own reality as American citizens.

If the attitudes of my students are any indication, we may well have arrived at a similar moment in our own history. Notwithstanding our proud national history of expanding upon the secular ideologies of the eighteenth century enlightenment (freedom of speech, religion, and the fundamental dignity of all human beings) and of prohibiting slavery, and expanding the rights and privileges of citizenship to racial minorities, women, and, even more recently, gay Americans, I fear for our future ability to carry on this work.

How might we get more voters to participate in elections? If what’s coming next in the national political debate doesn’t do the trick, it’s hard to see what will.

By all indications, the new congress, emboldened by their startling electoral victory, is likely attempt to pass any number of regressive national laws, including constitutional amendments defining marriage as being between a man and a woman and severely circumscribing, if not outlawing, a woman’s right to make basic choices about her own body.

Similarly, it’s easy to see a scenario in which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court allows state-level bans on same-sex marriage to stand, upholds voter repression laws and guts the Affordable Care Act.

Scary, right? But this is a court whose conservative majority is willing to call a daffodil a rose, by inventing legal precedents out of thin air to extend constitutional rights to corporations, in both the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby cases. Only when Texas executes one will I believe that corporations are “people.” Such corporate entities and their conservative allies give billions to super-PAC’s to elect officials who will reflect their own narrow interests, but would rather die a martyr’s death than pay taxes to help out their own fellow Americans, all in the name of “Christian” values that are devoid of charity and compassion.

Indeed, at the top of the conservative wish-list is the utter destruction of the entire edifice of the modern welfare state; by gutting the power of unions, cutting off income supplements and food stamps for hungry Americans, and allowing public education to rot on the vine.

But consider the possibility that the forces of conservatism (which apparently enjoy the unqualified support of a majority on the Court) do succeed in dismantling the social safety net. When this happens, it will not take too terribly long for the hungry to react. Conservatives know this, and are preparing for it. Municipal police forces all over this country are arming themselves with military hardware as conservative courts overturn gun control laws while conservative-led legislatures enact “stand your ground” laws.

When the time comes that conservative led governments go to war against their own hungry and disenfranchised citizens, I know I will not stand idly by. But what will my students do? Send them a text, perhaps they will answer.

Dr. Charles Beem is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.


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