Joe Biden gave the nation a much-needed civics lesson today in the guise of an inaugural address. His message was impossible to miss—America’s strength lies in American unity. It is a simple, almost banal, truth. It’s also one we risk losing sight of, and with it, most everything we cherish.
It attests to the parlous state of American politics that Biden felt compelled to open his address by reminding us “that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And … democracy has prevailed.” Just two weeks ago a mob attacked Capitol Hill seeking to overturn the results of a free-and-fair election. They were egged on by a president who refused to concede that he had lost and who actively promoted baseless charges of widespread election fraud. “The will of the people has been heeded,” as Biden put it, but only after considerable political damage was done.
Biden wisely chose not to try to match the poetic elegance of Lincoln’s two magisterial inaugural addresses or the inspirational vision of John F. Kennedy’s in his twenty-one minute speech. Instead, he spoke conversationally, talking like a man who has seen a lot—and learned a lot—during his half century in the upper reaches of American political life. He cautioned us about what we too often forget as we vent on Facebook and Twitter: “Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
Facing an inauguration audience thinned by coronavirus concerns and an unprecedented security lockdown, Biden openly acknowledged that the nation is set against itself. He admitted that his talk about “unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real.” No doubt in the back of his mind was the daunting political reality that his predecessor boycotted his inauguration and that three-quarters of Republicans believe he was not legitimately elected. It is hard to lead when people deny your right to do so.
Nor did Biden sugarcoat the challenges country faces:
We face an attack on our democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis. America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up, all of us? It’s time for boldness, for there’s so much to do.
He wisely left it there, resisting the temptation to begin listing draft bills, policy initiatives, and executive orders that his administration will pursue. He knows he has ample time in the future to talk specifics about his plans for addressing the issues the country faces at home and abroad.
Biden instead stuck to his theme: that our greatest challenge is to recover the magic of our democracy. He stressed the centrality of truth to the health of any democracy, warning that “there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.”
No speech, of course, no matter how well written or deftly delivered, can heal a nation. But a speech can mark a start. And that’s what Biden tried to do in calling on Americans to look to what unifies them rather than fixate on what divides them.
In the weeks and months to come Americans will argue about whether Biden is living up to his vow to champion unity. But the cure to our current democratic distress doesn’t lie in the actions of one president or one administration. Rather it lies in what we as a people do. In an implicit invocation of Kennedy’s famous line asking “what you can do for your country,” Biden called on all Americans to “begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.”
That is the fundamental civics lesson that Biden delivered. Only time will tell whether we as citizens are ready to heed that wisdom and to seek an end to what the forty-sixth president rightly called our “uncivil war.”
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.