In his Inaugural Address Wednesday, Joe Biden will surely issue an appeal for unity—a plea that all Americans raise our sights and lower our voices, that we work together to restore faith in government, and in each other. And so on.
The words will be heard as sensible by any sensible person. Unless he somehow sought help from the wrong speechwriter, some passages will be downright eloquent.
And if history is any guide, the effective half-life of this rhetorical appeal will be measured in days or hours. It is not that exhortations for unity fall on deaf ears; it is that they fall on desensitized minds, even among people who say they want unity and may actually believe it.
In narrow political terms, Biden has a strong interest in taming the forces of remorseless conflict and endless recrimination. His policy agenda depends on reviving a functional political center. In broad historical terms, everyone else has an interest, too. The country’s long-term vitality depends on it.
It’s a goal that goes without saying, but so far goes without achieving. As it happens, the best hope now is not Biden’s ability to summon the better angels of our nature with a soaring speech. To the contrary, the new president’s modest oratorical gifts—the fact that he is by modern political standards a bit boring—can be a powerful asset.
More than three decades of experience shows us what does not work in unifying Americans: inspirational words. With the exception of Donald Trump, every president from George H.W. Bush (who sought a “kinder, gentler nation”) to Bill Clinton (who pledged to be a “repairer of the breach”) to George W. Bush (“I want to change the tone of Washington”) to Barack Obama (“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America”) gave important speeches devoted to ending needless conflict.
Here’s what might work instead: substantive deeds at a moment when people urgently need government to work, no matter their political persuasion.
This would not require Biden persuading people that it’s time to swear off the cultural warfare that fueled the Trump years. Instead it would involve making the fact that many Americans feel contempt toward one another less relevant.
The particular public health and economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic give Biden a better chance to pull this off than any recent predecessor—especially in the wake of Trump, who had no interest in pulling it off.
Many anti-government conservatives who watch Sean Hannity have something in common with many government-loving liberals who watch Rachel Maddow: Both want to be jabbed in the shoulder with a needle. Neither has an interest in continuing the clumsy early vaccine distribution that has marked the final weeks of the Trump administration. Neither wants recession. Neither wants kids going to school on computer screens in their bedrooms. So both share an interest—even if limited and temporary—in seeing government become more functional.
Before he became inevitable in last year’s Democratic nominating contest, Biden was viewed even by many people who like him as a highly implausible president. This was because of all the things he is not: He’s not especially articulate; he is not an electric personal presence; he is not someone who naturally expresses his ideas by framing them as part of a bold historic argument about where the country is now and where it needs to go in the future.
Here is something else Biden is not: Someone whose worldview was shaped in important ways by time at an elite university campus and the cultural debates that thrive in that setting. He is the first president since Ronald Reagan for whom this is true.
He is also a politician who is old enough at 78 to have first-hand experience with the practical dynamics of the old Democratic coalition that started with the New Deal and reigned for many decades afterwards.
The old Democratic coalition, driven heavily by working class voters, was united primarily by material objectives. Government, in combination with organized labor, promoted economic well-being in tangible ways: Public works projects, worker protections, and a social compact that beneficiaries believed provided a reasonable floor on their standard of living, which included decent public schools.
Biden arrived in the Senate, at age 30 in January 1973, just as a new brand of politics was being born. This one was animated less by a material agenda than by one flowing from identity politics. This included battles over abortion rights and school integration, and gradually saw political conflicts take on sociological or even psychological hues: Which politician or party is more virtuous, which one more hypocritical or more contemptuous, which one is more supportive of people like you and shares your disdain for people not like you.
By the second half of Biden’s nearly half-century Washington career, this brand of politics had become big business—supporting a political-media complex of radio hosts and cable-television networks and eventually social media stars who depend on an angry and divided culture, profit from it, and also stimulate ever more anger and division.
It is this industry of commercialized contempt that is the main reason all the appeals for unity and a more constructive brand of politics from Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama ultimately proved feeble. It is why some 80 percent of Democrats agree the Republican Party has been “taken over by racists,” and the same percentage of Republicans responded that the Democratic Party has been “taken over by socialists,” according to an October poll by the nonprofit PRRI.
One advantage Biden has is that he is not actually that interesting to the contempt industry. There have been efforts to try to make him good for business—from mocking his advanced age or trying to spark arguments about Hunter Biden’s dubious business ventures orJill Biden’s claiming “Dr.” in her name even though she has a Ph.D. but is not a physician. None of these has generated much momentum, and certainly won’t yield anything like Trump-era dividends.
Modern politics depends heavily on symbolic arguments and abstractions. As outrageous as Trump often was in his rhetoric and political moves, until Covid-19 these outrages didn’t actually intersect often with the practical dimensions of daily life.
Biden presents an arresting possibility. He can revive a brand of politics that once again revolves around concrete things, rather than symbolism. If he passes ambitious legislation for infrastructure spending, as he promises to do, these will literally be concrete things. For the beneficiaries of such spending, which would include many Trump voters, this will matter more than, to cite a random example, an argument over whether Neera Tanden, his nominee to be budget director, has said too many mean things about Republicans on Twitter.
Biden’s stolid, persevering personality in this context is a gift. His bid to unite the country depends on moving its attention away from the abstract to the tangible, away from the politics of identity to the politics of material gains, away from large, philosophical arguments to tightly focused, pragmatic ones—away from exhortation to achievement.
The best way to unite the country may be not to talk about it much.