Biden and Harris have been inaugurated. Trump has slunk off to Florida without his Twitter account. Most of the world has breathed a deep sigh of relief.
In his Inaugural Address, Biden issued a call for bipartisan unity to address the many crises revealed in the last hellish year.
But is unity possible? What does unity mean when the Inauguration took place at a Capitol ringed by 15,000 troops for fear that the fascists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 might try again? What kind of unity is possible when 147 Republicans voted against impeaching Trump, and 138 voted to stop the certification of the 2020 election? And, of course, there is the question of what to do with the 74 million people who voted for Trump, 77% of whom believe Biden stole the election.
So, what will it take to get to the bi-partisan unity that Biden so dearly wants?
The problem with Biden’s call for unity is that there is always the danger that under the pressure to enact legislation, Democrats will continually compromise with unrepentant Trump Republicans. This pressure will be especially intense because Democrats have razor-thin majorities in both the House and the Senate, and Republicans will definitely try to peel off centrist Democrats.
But if Democrats give into Republicans, there will be no healing this country.
Fortunately, in his Inaugural Address, Biden not only spoke of the need for bi-partisan unity. He also spoke of the need to address what he called “the cascading crises of this era:” the Covid pandemic, the attack on democracy and truth, systemic racism, white supremacy, growing inequality, and climate crisis.
Here’s the crux of the problem: only by addressing the cascading crises of our era can there be real national reconciliation, and real unity.
A useful starting place is to remember that Biden and Harris were elected by 81 million people, and that Democrats won control of the Senate through the hard and long labors of multi-racial coalitions centered by women of color in all of the swing states. Indeed, Georgia’s new Senators Warnick and Ossoff were sworn into office on Inauguration Day by the first woman of color ever to be elected Vice President of the United States. Most significantly, the Georgia wins marked a significant erosion of the Republican’s so-called Southern Strategy, which has been the basis of the right’s strategy for national power since 1968.
In other words, the rise of white supremacist fascism under Trump is the rage of people who understand full well that history is not on their side. As Amanda Gorman put it in her powerful Inaugural poem,
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”Amada Gorman Inaugural Poem
But white supremacists, with their narcissistic belief that the world exists to serve them, do not understand history. And because of that they overplayed their hand on January 6.
The insurrection, coming hours after the Republicans lost the Senate, was too much for all except the most radical Trump supporters. The insurrection was almost universally labeled seditious and treasonous, and Trump was blamed for instigating it by a wide spectrum of Americans, including his former staunch ally Mitch McConnell. In his final days in office, Trump’s approval rating sank to 29 percent.
The official defense of democracy began within hours of the attack, as the Joint Session of Congress completed its certification of the 2020 election. Within a week, the House had voted to impeach Trump a second time, with the intent of barring him from ever running for office again. In the Senate, enough Republican Senators may join McConnell to convict the former bigot-in-Chief. But even if not, a split in the Republican ranks will weaken the hold of white supremacy on that party. The national security apparatus has now officially designated white supremacist organizations as domestic terrorists and have begun arresting some of the insurrection’s most visible participants. Top brass has begun investigating white supremacist units in the military and some police departments. The House of Representatives may well take action against Republican Members who aided and abetted the insurrection such as Colorado Representative Lauren Broebert, who tweeted Nancy Pelosi’s movements to the paramilitary units hunting for her.
These steps are crucial to the defense of democracy, but they are not sufficient to unite America. Much more is needed even for the most basic defense of democracy, such as ending the Republicans’ half a century of efforts at minority voter suppression.
The restoration of democratic norms will mean little, however, if it does not produce action on President Biden’s ‘cascading crises.’ Biden is off to a remarkable start, signing 17 Executive Orders on Inauguration Day, most of which restored immigrant and refugee rights that had been taken away by Trump.
But the hard work to enact legislation—starting with a huge Covid relief bill, but also a ‘green jobs’ bill, immigration reform, adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, strengthening the regulation of banking, etc. —has not yet begun.
In the dramatic weeks and months ahead, Democrats need to remember that there is no point talking about unity for its own sake, or even to pass tepid legislation. Unity is be measured by steps that actually address the ‘cascading crises,’ that heal America through redemptive action.
Most importantly, Democrats must remember that they have the means to undertake big things. The 2020 election was won and defended after it was won by multiracial coalitions that were not built to just win elections, but to pursue social justice policies that will heal America.
Democrats have a historic opportunity to tap into and grow these powerful grassroots movements to advance legislation and regulations that will advance a real social justice agenda. Through hard work to mobilize many millions of people we have the opportunity—after 244 years—to reconstruct and unite this country.
If the Democrats forge such deep ties to the coalitions that elected them, they will create the conditions to heal this country of the deep scars of Covid, racism, hyper-inequality, and the dismissal of science and facts, all conditions that supported the Republicans’ attacks on democracy.
Democrats must have the confidence to really believe that the 2020 election demonstrated the emergence of a multi-racial, democratic America that thirsts for long-delayed justice. They must understand that the nightmare of Donald Trump was just the birth pains of a society on the cusp of its third Reconstruction, a historic opportunity to finally realize what Martin Luther King called “America’s higher destiny.”