President Joe Biden’s inaugural address clearly came from his heart. Watching the speech, you could see and hear the degree to which the abuses and divisions of the Trump years offended and concerned him. His call for unity—the central theme of his remarks—was not mere words. He dedicated his “whole soul” to the mission of “uniting our people, uniting our country.”
But he also noted that achieving unity was “the most elusive of all things in a democracy.” He squarely acknowledged our history of divisions both in the past and during our recent history.
He referred to our current politics as being torn apart by “an uncivil war that pits red vs. blue, rural vs. urban.”
Against the backdrop of not just the Capitol but of the violent attack on that building just two weeks earlier, his words gained both context and a sense of urgency. The new president clearly understands that we are living at an extraordinarily dangerous moment in our history. Decisions we make in the weeks and months ahead will have profound consequences about whether our democracy will survive.
It would be naïve to think that at this or any other moment Democrats and Republicans will set aside their core political differences, and Biden himself noted that such disagreements were an element of the system of government we have chosen. But for the country to survive, for him and all those officials who stood behind and around him on that platform to honor their oaths of office, it is clear that the first test of his ability to unify will center on whether Americans of both parties can come together to repair and restore and strengthen our democracy.
Everyone listening to Biden speak knew that we have just endured a seditious attempt to invalidate free and fair elections that was followed by a violent insurrection, an attack that left five people dead. Many of those listening to him in person were among the thousands who were terrorized by the marauding mob that broke down doors, beat Capitol Police officers, chanted about hanging the vice president, and tried to hunt down members of Congress. That vice president was there, even if his former boss, the man who incited the insurrection, was not.
This is the first great hurdle toward Biden’s goal of unity and preserving our institutions: If the leaders who stood together on the platform to celebrate the continuity of our democracy cannot come together in the weeks and months ahead and take concrete steps to hold coup-plotters and seditionists accountable and then seek the changes we need to ensure we never again face such threats, we will invite much worse.
The recent House vote on Donald Trump’s second impeachment showed some progress on this issue. Ten GOP members of Congress voted to impeach the president, making the vote the most bipartisan in the history of U.S. presidential impeachments. What is more, the current Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has also indicated his support for the idea of impeaching Trump. Some believe this could clear the way for achieving the two-thirds majority necessary to convict Trump.
But there is a much bigger issue at play here. This is not just about Trump’s upcoming Senate trial. Unless leaders from both parties work to make defending democracy a joint priority then we soon again will be at risk. Indeed, if we falter, history suggests we will be following in the footsteps of other democracies that dismissed or minimized threats and soon succumbed to dictators.
Not adequately responding to the threats of would-be authoritarians because those behind them seem unworthy, disorganized, or ignorant—or because it is politically hard or uncomfortable—is a dangerous error. Hitler’s Beer Hall putsch of 1923 was a failure too. It was mocked. Ten years later Hitler took power, and the result was the worst calamity in the history of the world.
Mussolini was dismissed for years, and even as his power grew, the Italian government minimized the threat he posed because they had been distracted by fears of communism. Venezuelan elites dismissed and ridiculed Hugo Chavez after his failed 1992 coup attempt. Six years later he was elected leader of that country and began dismantling its democracy.
The lesson is clear. We must resist the temptation to try to turn the page too quickly. Healing is not about merely feeling better. It is about actually getting better, and that involves standing up for our laws and our system and ensuring that no one ever again makes the mistake of seeking to assault them as Trump and his mob did.
It is not just about convicting Trump in the Senate or prosecuting insurrectionists. It is also about identifying, tracking, and containing extremists, fixing what is broken, fragile, or inequitable in our electoral systems, reforming campaign finance laws, and seeking to end both the politics and the economics of division in America, the idea that we must destroy the other side to win or the idea that we can exploit them for our benefit.
Unity is not merely about finding the path of least resistance to easy compromises. For it to endure, we must clearly identify those areas of principle that are so important that to defend them, we agree to set aside politics even when that is hard or personally costly to do.
At past moments of seemingly intolerable division, our greatest leaders understood this. It was Lincoln, of course, who framed this best when in 1858, in a speech in Springfield, Illinois during his failed campaign for the U.S. Senate, he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
He said that in a divided nation, on the eve of the bloodiest war the world had ever known. Healing at that moment seemed an impossible ambition. But he knew, as did the Founders, that the most important concept underlying the founding of the country was embodied not in any clause of our founding documents but in the first word of the new country’s name, “United.”
This is the idea and ideal on which Joe Biden is staking his presidency. It is the right idea for this moment, the essential challenge to which we all must rise—the only real way to prevent the future success of those, like Trump, following in the footsteps of past authoritarians, who actively seek to tear the country apart to serve their own narrow greed and ambitions.
Finding common ground is the radical idea that made this country possible, even for founders who were keenly aware of all that divided them. And as hard as finding common ground is, maintaining it until the work of ensuring this never happens again is even harder.
While the recent attempted coup was a shock to our system and the seditious plot that led up to it has done much damage, there is a bigger story. We survived them. The American people defeated Trump and returned the Senate to Democratic control. Courts, including many presided over by Trump- or GOP-appointed judges, rejected Trump’s lies. Office holders from both parties defended the elections from interference.
And within hours of the mob storming the Capitol, the Congress was doing its business and ratifying the Biden-Harris victory. Trump was impeached in a bipartisan vote. Leaders from both parties have condemned the violence and the threat to our system. The mob and its organizers will be held accountable. And the new president has committed himself to fight to both bring us together and to “defend our Constitution… to defend our democracy.”
We demonstrated yet again the wisdom of the American people and the resilience of our system. Now, we must apply the lessons we have learned by finding a way to work together to restore the foundations of our democracy, including “the guardrails” within it to which Biden referred in his address. As our new president said, “With unity, we can do great things”—then going on to add that with it, “we can right wrongs.”