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In his simple yet sonorous victory speech, Joe Biden — America’s Pop Pop and now president-elect — made a plea for healing. “Let’s give each other a chance,” he said.
That line stood out to me. Let’s give each other a chance. It is a reminder that the violence, the abuse, of the Trump years wasn’t only one-to-many, flowing from the top down. It was also all-against-all, ricocheting horizontally, touching us all. I will admit if you will admit that many of us changed for the worse in these years, if not by choice. We became harsher, shorter with those we disagreed with, more prone to bad faith, more suspicious, more stressed, less magnanimous even to those who are allies.
This was the vortex of Trumpism. In fighting him, you risked becoming like him. You couldn’t beat him without stepping onto his field.
And so a question that will dawn with the Biden years is whether, in addition to this change of high leadership, we will change.
Will we argue differently? Will we succumb less often to bad faith? Will we assume better of those who share fundamental values with us but take different routes?
Already, on cue, there have been public, and controversial, calls for gestures of unity.
“Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump,” the political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote in a (much-maligned) tweet:
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a possible appointee in the incoming administration, took a more omnidirectional approach:
There have also been the inevitable skirmishes within the Democratic Party’s ranks. In a so-called “family meeting” after the election, some party moderates lashed out at their progressive colleagues for, in their view, pushing the party too far to the left. And one of the party’s brightest stars, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, argued back that it was the moderates senselessly stoking division: “When we kind of come out swinging not 48 hours after Tuesday, when we don’t even have solid data yet, pointing fingers and telling each other what to do, it deepens the division in the party, and it’s irresponsible,” she told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s irresponsible to pour gasoline on these already very delicate tensions in the party.”
Here are questions all this talk left me with: Is unity even the proper goal right now? Or is unity more properly understood as something that will emerge if the new administration sets about measurably improving people’s lives and repairing the country’s perilously weak institutions? Is unity in the face of an ongoing autocratic attempt foolishness?
Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the Democracy for America political action committee and an ABC News political commentator, offered an eloquent counterpoint to the current unity fetish: “Unity is great, but freedom is better,” she said. “And there’s a part of this population that has sacrificed their freedom time and time again for unity, and they’re tired of it. Yes, we want to have compromise. Yes, we want bipartisanship. But it shouldn’t cost people wages and healthcare and education. And so if you’re asking us to come together and that means my world doesn’t change, the people whose world needs to change doesn’t change, I don’t want that kind of unity.”
Many of the present discussions presume disunity to be a cause of our democratic decay. But disunity may be better understood as a symptom of a diseased body politic. We should treat the underlying disease.
Yesterday the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, refused to acknowledge the election results and actually boosted Trump’s conspiracy theorizing. These are not people you need to reach out to. These are people you need to constrain through law, as much as possible, and beat overwhelmingly.
Perhaps the way to bring the country together is not to bring the country together but to fix it. Perhaps the way to heal divisions is not to heal divisions but to get the government working again. Perhaps the way to get people to believe in science isn’t to get people to believe in science but to roll out a vaccine successfully, fairly, and efficiently. Perhaps the antidote to the poison of this era isn’t the active pursuit of kumbaya but good, old-fashioned progress: steady and palpable life betterment, and the repair of institutions so they can’t be hijacked again.
When I asked Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” about her vision for a Biden administration, she answered at two opposite ends of the spectrum of ambition. First, she told me about a project her students had done to draft new constitutional amendments — a new voting-rights law being their most popular idea. And then she brought up the need for immediate assistance amid the pandemic. She said that, if she were in a Biden administration, that would be her focus: answering the crisis, and using those answers to buy space for bigger things, and using those bigger things to buy space for even bigger ones.
“The good government and civil discourse reforms ought to come out of the doing of something, doing it right, and doing it well,” she told me. “F.D.R., days after he was inaugurated, undertook to address the banking emergency, beginning with that first fireside chat. The good government stuff: you have to get to that, you have to, have to, have to, but you also have to earn it, and, meanwhile, you have to address the emergency.”
Our political leaders and pundits ought to heed examples like that one — and, equally, the advice that every young writer receives again and again: Don’t tell — show.
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