President Biden responded to the challenge with an inaugural address of simple verse filled with words that lately have had gone missing from the political lexicon — words like sacrifice, dignity, respect, humility, duty, devotion, responsibility, honor, love, tolerance, decency and unity — above all, unity.
“My whole soul is in this,” Biden declared, “bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation … to fight the foes we face — anger, resentment, hatred.”
Poetry does not come naturally to Biden, who in his youth overcame an embarrassing stutter and even now is more comfortable surrounding himself with competent technocrats than poetic visionaries. His embrace of a rhetoric of civic virtue was meant as an antidote to a national conversation poisoned by presidential tweet storms, cable news calumny and social media vitriol.
“Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another,” he pleaded. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
“My fellow Americans,” he continued, “we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this.”
Like Abraham Lincoln, Biden took his oath under heavy military guard and against a backdrop of insurrection. And like Lincoln, he took pains to direct his remarks not only to those who had supported his candidacy but also to those who did not.
Yet unlike his predecessor, who inherited a booming economy and a world at peace but could only see “carnage,” Biden looked out from a ransacked Capitol to a country reeling from pandemic and riven with injustice and saw the possibility for renewal and rebuilding.
The storming of the Capitol two weeks earlier had exposed a dangerous seam of right-wing anger and delusion beneath the surface of American society. But unlike many of his fellow Democrats, Biden was careful not to indulge in self-righteous outrage that threatens to accelerate the spiral of retribution and revenge that has incapacitated government and turned politics into blood sport.
You hear it in the calls for “repentance before reconciliation” and “no healing without accountability.” You see in the push to impeach President Donald Trump and the online chants to lock him up. You smell it in the calls to expel members of the House and Senate who encouraged the rioters by questioning the validity of the vote count and to boycott the companies that fund their campaigns. You sense it in the ease with which the media and liberal watchdog groups slip into guilt by association as they spin narratives of a massive right-wing conspiracy.
Lord knows there is justification and moral logic for such impulses. But Biden’s warning to his fellow partisans was that these are unlikely to deliver the unity the country needs.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes.”
As a wily veteran of Washington, Biden knows there are only two ways to end our partisan blood feud.
One is for one side to finally crush the other side into submission — a goal that has long animated ideologues of both parties but remains unlikely after an election that left each with nearly identical representation in the House and Senate. It is nothing more than fantasy to think that 74 million Americans, and the politicians who misled them, are suddenly going to throw up their hands and own up to being the racist, malicious, reality-denying hypocrites and conspiracists too many Democrats now think them to be. That ain’t gonna happen.
The only other way to end the cycle of retribution is to just swallow hard and end it. Democrats could start by toning their own “carnage” rhetoric, retraining their instinct to punish every Trump enabler and refraining from trying to ram through every policy on a purely partisan basis. In the wake of the assault on the Capitol, maybe — just maybe — there are enough Republicans feeling enough regret and embarrassment to respond to such restraint with a bit of bipartisan cooperation.
Admitting that some might consider that a “foolish fantasy,” Biden signaled he’s willing to give it a try.
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors,” he exhorted. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage.”
The payback from an early round of cooperation and compromise could be enormous: faster, bolder action to control a deadly pandemic, reopen schools and restart economy. Hundreds of billions in much-needed public investment. A first step toward a climate policy. Citizenship for “dreamers.” Cutting poverty in half through tax credits and a sizable hike in the minimum wage. These would be significant achievements even if they did fall short of the politically derived lines in the sand that have already been drawn by self-appointed progressive activists.
But the bigger, longer-term benefit of cooperation and compromise would be a return to the ideal that was once the defining characteristic of American democracy — pluralism. E pluribus unum — from the many, one. And although he did not mention it by name, the pluralistic ideal lies at the core of Biden’s summons to national unity.
In a healthy pluralistic society, differences of race, religion, values, beliefs, lifestyles and political ideology are not just tolerated and respected — they are valued and celebrated as a source of strength and common purpose. In such an America, citizens hold their own views with humility, recognize opposing views as legitimate and try to accommodate those with whom they disagree even when they have the power not to do so. And the reason they do so is because the benefits of maintaining a healthy politics and well-functioning government outweigh whatever immediate satisfactions might come from achieving total victory.
When it comes to pluralism, Americans and their political leaders are now badly out of practice. The all-too-common view is that those in the other party are not just opponents with different views, but enemies who threaten the country’s well-being and survival. Those on the other side are not just misguided or misinformed, they are evil — making compromise morally unacceptable. A cancel culture that punishes dissent and enforces ideological purity has become a cancer on both the left and the right.
This isn’t just a political problem — it’s an economic one as well. For as Brink Lindsey of the centrist Niskanen Center points out, America is a case study of the direct line of causation between pluralism and prosperity.
One of the strengths of the U.S. economy has been the efficiencies of scale it derives from having big companies serving a vast domestic market financed by a large pool of homegrown capital. Such size and scope would have been impossible had we not welcomed ambitious people of different faiths, different cultures and different races from across the globe.
Another was the ability of our government to respond quickly to competitive threats and adapt to changing technologies. History is replete with stories of once-great nations and empires that chose to protect the status quo rather than accept new ideas or inventions or find new ways for people to collaborate. Our knack for embracing this messy process of creative destruction was only possible because we had a political system capable of mediating between winners and losers. But as our commitment to pluralism waned, that system broke down and that vital capacity eroded.
Better than almost anyone else in Washington, Biden understands that the success of American capitalism does not depend on how big whether every American get a check for $2,000 or $1,000, or whether the minimum wage is raised to $15 or $12, or whether electric utilities are required to use renewable energy sources for all or their power or just two-thirds, as important as those issues might be. Our success as an economy and as a nation now depends on whether we can rebuild the trust we have in each other, and in our institution, so that we can actually make such decisions in a reasonable and timely manner.
In his simple, compelling and heartfelt call for unity, a new president has set us on that path.