Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, delivered a eulogy at the funeral for John Lewis in Atlanta on Thursday that traced the long arc of history that ran through the great man's life. He spoke of Lewis's bravery at Selma—and in the Freedom Rides, and in the Nashville sit-ins—and how the Alabama state troopers, some of whom nearly beat Lewis to death at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, might have thought they'd won at the end of the first day. That they'd pushed back the tide of history and preserved for themselves the order of things. But then another day came. It seemed an allegory for our times, when, as ever, the relentless movement to make this country live up to its founding values is "hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed."
But Obama's grasp also tightened on what might be called more concrete concerns. He demanded that those many politicians calling John Lewis a hero could best honor him "by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for"—the Voting Rights Act, which Senate Republicans have refused to renew. The Supreme Court's gutting of the Act under John Roberts precipitated a wave of voter suppression, particularly in the very same former Jim Crow states that the Act had originally targeted for the most stringent oversight. Obama demanded the Act's revitalization, but he went further: he called for the destruction of the Senate filibuster if it's necessary to do so—that is, if Republicans lose control of the chamber and abuse the filibuster to block legislation. In the process, he classified the filibuster itself as a "Jim Crow relic."
What's at stake now is whether the American republic itself will crumble under the weight of corruption and neglect and, most of all, the ancient sins of its founding. But on the other side, we are presented with an opportunity to redeem this nation once more, to carry on the project of making this a true democracy where all people claim the full rights of citizenship. For Obama, this explicitly means giving full voting rights to the people of Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. It means fair redistricting to loosen the grip of minority rule on so many of our institutions. That, at root, is what's at stake: can one of our political parties continue to abuse the mechanisms of our republic to exercise power without vying for the support of a majority of citizens? After all, no one even pretends Donald Trump might win a majority of actual votes.
And beyond all that, there's the politics here. Obama's former vice president, Joe Biden, is now the presumptive Democratic nominee, but he has never gone as far as Obama did Thursday. Biden has mused about nixing the filibuster if Senate Republicans prove "obstreperous" should he take office as president, but he may still be clinging to his first love, Reaching Across the Aisle. So did Obama, for far too long. He sought Grand Bargains well into his second term, continuing to hold out for some outbreak of Republican conscience, for a conservative movement governed by reason rather than backlash and paranoia. It seems that even Barack Obama has dispensed with all that now. Vote, win, and govern without apology. There's no time for Joe Manchin's protracted calculations as The Republican's Democrat, and the last Democratic president may have just taken the decision out of his hands.
It was John Lewis, after all, who originally planned to say this at the March on Washington: "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy."
Get the job done now, at the first moment you can, or we will all reap the whirlwind. The current president has shown how weak the American republic has grown, and others will have been watching.
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