Could Joe Biden Actually Bring America Back Together?

That’s the title of a provocative article by Michael Luo in the New Yorker.

President Trump is a purveyor extraordinaire of nonstop toxic polarizing conflict, enabled by leaders in his party.  Many people in our field understandably want him to leave office and stop (or reduce) his inflammatory words and actions.  If Vice President Biden is elected, what’s the best approach for handling social and political conflict?  What’s even possible?  That’s the subject of Mr. Luo’s article.  He writes:

Earlier this month, on a sunny, cloudless day at the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, former Vice-President Joe Biden delivered a sombre speech about “the cost of division” in America.  “The country is in a dangerous place,” he said.  “Our trust in each other is ebbing.  Hope seems elusive.  Too many Americans see our public life not as an arena for mediation of our difference but, rather, they see it as an occasion for total, unrelenting partisan warfare.  Instead of treating each other’s party as the opposition, we treat them as the enemy.”  Biden called for a revival of the “spirit of bipartisanship in this country” and an end to “this era of division.”  It is a message that Biden has turned to time and again when summoning an overarching purpose for his campaign.  “We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided, a path of shadow and suspicion,” he said, when he accepted his party’s nomination for President, at the Democratic National Convention.  “Or we can choose a different path and, together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite – a path of hope and light.”

Mr. Luo summarizes recent analyses of the polarization in our society:

“In general, Americans can be sorted into two camps: those who view the past half-century’s changes as having mainly positive effects on their lives and on American society, and those who view the effects of these changes as mainly negative,” Abramowitz writes.  “Since the 1960s, Americans in the first group have increasingly come to support the Democrats, while those in the second group have increasingly come to support the Republicans.”

Political parties have become shorthand for far more than just policy preferences.  “Partisanship can now be thought of as a mega-identity, with all the psychological and behavioral magnifications that implies,” Lilliana Mason, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book, “Uncivil Agreement.”  Making matters worse, the two sides have become increasingly isolated from each other.  “Partisans have less and less in common,” Mason writes.  “Fewer cross-cutting cleavages remain to link the parties together and allow the understanding, communication, and compromise necessary to fuel the American electorate, and, by extension, the American government.”

“A fully divided two-party system without any overlap is probably unworkable in any democracy, given what it does to our minds,” [political scientist Lee Drutman] writes.  “It leads us to see our fellow citizens not as political opponents to politely disagree with but as enemies to delegitimize and destroy.”

The article discusses some possible remedies:

[A] Biden Presidency could consciously aspire to a common agenda and spirit that transcends party.  In “This America,” my colleague Jill Lepore makes the case for a “new Americanism,” bound together “by a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to a national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over.”

[I]t is probably wishful thinking to imagine that Biden, or any single individual, could engender a movement for the common good.  But, if anything has been made plain by the Trump era, it is that the Presidency offers a megaphone to shape the broader culture.  A narcissistic President drives a narcissistic culture.   A movement toward “We” in America could start with a President less focussed on “I.”

Opponents of Mr. Trump understandably want Democrats to take control, reverse his policies, and delegitimize his supporters – especially Republican Party leaders.  Of course, doing so would perpetuate the conflict and possibly undermine Democrats’ efforts to build a popular consensus to support their policies.  If they don’t take these actions, however, they would acquiesce to policies and norms they find intolerable, and undermine consensus within the Democratic coalition.

So we return to the question of whether a President Biden should and could bring the country back together – and how he could do so.  For example, he just proposed a commission to de-politicize federal courts.  Would that lead to political progress?

Unfortunately, government policy has become so partisan that prominent elected officials too often just recite talking points without trying to solve problems.  Actor Chris Evans developed a website, A Starting Point, with short substantive policy analyses on a range of issues by members of both parties.  Would efforts like these make a significant difference?

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Could Joe Biden Actually Bring America Back Together?”

  1. I think much of this comes down to whether you think your political opponents are “mistaken”, i.e. people of good faith who have just come to the wrong conclusions on, say, how to best provide for racial equality, or are in “conflict” with you, i.e. people that have a fundamentally different view that say, racial equality is a valuable goal. If you believe they are mistaken, then yes, the ADR tools that we espouse – dialogue, listening, etc. will help us come to a consensus on the best way forward. But if you believe that they are in conflict – due to values, etc. then the idea of “bringing the country together” is not only not desirable, but harmful, since it will allow those values that you disagree with to be instantiated in policy.

    Even your example of “devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to a national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over,” falls prey to this. What if one side does not believe in equality or liberty? Or that “a sustainable environment the world over” is a valuable goal, and that the rest of the world should not be our concern? If Jill Leopore “makes her case” for these values, and the other side simply says “I don’t care, you’re a Democrat, therefore you are wrong”, where does she go from there?

    I refer you to a quote from Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh “Getting along is not the objective. When it comes to the war on terror, when it comes to tax policy, to me, defeating, politically, people I disagree with is the order of the day, and I don’t think I defeat them by compromising with them.” Mr. Limbaugh hosts the most popular radio program in the United States.

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