Reaching my middle age, I am fortunate enough to have expressed my will as a voter in six, Presidential elections and dozens of local, state, and national races or referendums. Given my places of residence across that span, I’ve commiserated in defeat more often than victory. I remember the euphoria of aiding a reform-minded friend win a local school board election in Indianapolis. Equally crushing was the now-defunct 2006 ban on same-sex marriage via Amendment 1 in Tennessee, which I campaigned hard against.
Win or lose, I never leave any contest without the germ of an idea for next steps. Such is the way of politics and policy. I rely on the maxims of Dr. King (“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”) and Harvey Milk (“I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up”) to push me further and further still. Yet, the here-and-now presents an, if not unprecedented, extremely unique opportunity for every American.
The tempering of expectations
“I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify,” reverberate the words of newly President-elect Biden in his victory speech. Any other year, this axiom would seem rote. Not now. This sentence finds more airtime than any other statement issued by the President-elect. Those of us paying attention understand why. The words are not as important as the one question they inevitably conjur. How?
How do you unify a country where 47% of presidential voters selected for President a man now facing charges of inciting insurrection against the United States? How can you unify two parties, splintering from within over vast approaches to every facet of fiscal, social, and foreign policy? How…
Within three hours of this article’s publication, President Biden will face an immediate, doctoral-level examination of beginning to answer these questions. Reportedly, his “First 100 Days” agenda involves a plethora of executive orders overturning those of his predecessor; requesting a massively contentious COVID-19 plan; and introducing a white-hot immigration bill. All of this will be done beneath the looming specter of Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial.
The ambition of Biden’s administration are typical of any new President. The myth of winning these fights without significant concessions is the reality. Despite any disillusionment voters for Mr. Trump may now feel, their core beliefs will not die with his presidency. Federal Senators and Representatives on the losing side will not lay down their agenda. Senate Rule XXII (3/5 rule to invoke cloture and end a filibuster) remains in effect.
Our United States faces divisions unseen since the 1860s. Knowing this chasm exists and acknowledging the eventualities of bridging versus damming the gulf requires meticulous effort. We should not read this as meaning hope for progress and healing as lost. Rather, we must understand the cautionary nature of the path we tread. Neither did former President Obama usher in a liberal utopia nor President Trump a conservative one. These administrations highlight the fractious nature of idolized personas. Rightfully and wrongfully, particular elements of their agendas continue unrealized. The rifts remain as the result of divisive lobbying and funding practices, the power ambitions of politicians, and the diminution of truth and fact in “town squares.”
In short, the expectations for a radical and tangible change as of noon on this 20th day of January 2021 must be tempered with the historical record and present conditions.
Hope as a balm
Historicity is an oblique nuance viewed through darkened glass for most citizens, even in the face of living memory. This present moment in our country’s history begs us to clean the glass and reflect long on the conditions currently facing us individually as well as within and without our borders at-large. As in the Civil War’s aftermath, a time of expedient and imperative change is necessary. Our hope acts as a balm, yet it must be expeditiously followed by action.
We must strive to embrace the science behind ending the COVID-19 pandemic and reversing the devastation of climate-related disasters. We cannot wait on repairing our reputation with longtime allies and intervening to mitigate despotic threats to human rights. We hold a moral obligation to offer a realistic path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants and Dreamers striving for a better life within our borders. Without flinching, we owe it to our neighbors and fellow citizens of color to no longer just hear them but listen and institute sweeping changes to address systemic inequality and racism. We must… in education, in healthcare, in so many, many things weighing on our national conscience.
Our hope lies in positive action on all of these. Yet without actively seeking to repair the relationships between our neighbors and family members, our hopes will fall short and our motivations will be evermore suspect. Without civil discourse, an educated exchange, we will continue failing in our understandings of one another and gaining traction for change. In 150 years, this has never been more important.
Regardless of our station in society, we hold the power to influence our sphere. We may choose to be the hammer or the scalpel. Both are necessary tools but should only be used in their proper context. The overload of deep concerns may sometimes result in choosing the wrong approach. But if we vigilantly ascribe to a nature of healing and reconciliation, we will achieve — if not unity — at least respectful understanding. Nothing is more important than this basic step in ensuring collective action for the common good.
These basics won’t solve our most pressing concerns. The adoption of greater compassion will still mean compromise. We will remain along a continuum of personal and political beliefs — some which can’t be reconciled. Gaps in our knowledge or understanding will forever require educating. Yet, the peaceful conflict of ideology, giving way to ever greater benefits for our society, make us stronger in spite of any differences.
We are one nation under many banners. We need temper our desire for full satisfaction, but we need never lose our hope.