It’s hard to see a silver lining these days.
We knew dark times were ahead when President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017. We knew he would shovel conservative justices onto the Supreme Court, though few people predicted how thoroughly he and Mitch McConnell would remake the federal court system with young Federalist Society acolytes. We knew that a Republican-dominated Congress would churn out tax cuts for the rich and work to undo the Affordable Care Act to benefit of private health-care insurers. We knew he’d try to build a wall and demonize immigrants and expand on the immigration-detention system built for him by Bush and Obama. But on this issue and many others, Trump went further, separating children—babies, even—from their parents and families as a form of punishment.
Over time, the opposition to Trump has become numb to the perpetual outrage. With each new low, we lowered our expectations. But almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic toppled any sense of complacency or normalcy. Millions of workers either lost their jobs or were faced with the impossible choice of going broke or risking their health. Schools closed, businesses shuttered, and more than 215,000 people died because of the worst-run pandemic response in the entire world. The long-term effects of those stricken with this illness are still unknown.
Then, over the summer, cities, suburbs, and small towns everywhere exploded in protests calling for an end to systemic racism as heavily armed right-wing extremists marched through the streets. But so far, we’ve seen little in the way of concrete action from most elected officials and outright hostility to anything resembling justice from the Trump administration on down to North Carolina’s Republican-run state legislature.
We’re not going to sugar-coat this: The Democratic Party is not going to fix all of these problems. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, the two Democratic names at the top of this year’s ballot, think in terms of incrementalism rather than revolution, and sometimes the increments move backward rather than forward.
Biden wasn’t our top choice by any stretch of the imagination. Bernie Sanders would have fought for a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, while Elizabeth Warren would have wielded her authority to tackle monopolies and the worst excesses of capitalism. All of these things are unlikely under a Biden term. But Biden’s election would stop the bleeding in several key areas, from climate change and immigration to raising the minimum wage.
Cunningham is even less perfect—in fact, recent revelations of an extramarital affair confirmed through cringe-worthy text messages reveal a nauseating level of hubris and stupidity. It’s hard to feel great about him even if we know he’ll reliably vote the party line. His nomination is yet another example of Democrats in Washington throwing their support behind the kind of candidate they believe North Carolinians want rather than one who will tackle the problems that plague people here and everywhere—poverty, racial injustice, instability, and more.
But the outcome of these two races atop the ballot of our swing state holds outsize sway. North Carolina could be the tipping state in terms of control of the White House and the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority. In other words, we’re poised to once again play a pivotal role in the direction of our country. And while it’s easy to feel like there are no great choices this election, look further down the ballot, and you’ll see that’s not the case. In the gubernatorial race, Roy Cooper has been a steady hand during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his vetoes have helped stop a runaway General Assembly from enacting some of the worst impulses of the right.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest is leaving his post to run for governor, and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry is retiring. We have an opportunity to replace these Republicans with two highly qualified candidates, Yvonne Lewis Holley and Jessica Holmes, who would also make history as the first Black women ever to serve on North Carolina’s Council of State.
The General Assembly is also on the ballot, something few of us need to be reminded. Since taking control of the legislature a decade ago, Republicans have written bigotry and inequality into state law, and because of gerrymandering, they’ve done so with little worry about electoral consequences. Democrats have promised to implement an independent redistricting commission to draw fair districts that actually reflect our see-saw political leanings, as well as to expand Medicaid and raise teacher pay.
The state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are also on the ballot, with Chief Justice Cheri Beasley—one of the most forceful voices for racial justice on any bench anywhere in the country—leading a group of Democratic judges to provide a crucial check on the right-wing politics of the last 10 years and try to reorient the justice system toward something that actually resembles justice.
And finally, there are a slew of local races—from county boards all the way down to soil and water district supervisor—and an affordable-housing bond in Raleigh, which may have the biggest impact on your everyday life.
It’s easy to feel disillusioned right now. There’s been a coordinated, well-funded effort to make you feel disconnected from the political process for a long time. A lot of us can’t help but feel worn down by it, especially since there’s so much else going on in our lives.
But at the very least, this election could serve as an outright rejection of so much of what has plagued us in this young century: inequality, corruption, authoritarianism, fascism, the vilification of those who fight it, and more. It could strengthen existing movements and create the conditions for organizing new ones. It could prove that we can and should demand more from our politics and political establishment.
Joe Biden can’t save us. Cal Cunningham can’t save us. Only we can save us. And in this election, our best chance at survival is to get rid of Donald Trump and Thom Tillis forever. Vote them out and vote democracy back in, but don’t overlook everything else on your ballot in the process.
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