There is something off kilter in America. Joseph Biden won the presidency with 81 million votes, seven million more than his opponent. He earned an electoral college margin of 306-232. In a healthy democracy this would be the time that the defeated candidate calls for the nation to come together and heal. But that is not the case today.
President Donald Trump and his die-hard minions are making asses out of themselves while they rip long-held principles out of the heart of America’s democracy. They are campaigning across the country and tweeting endlessly, demanding that secretaries of state, governors, judges, and Republican legislative leaders break long-standing customs and laws to overturn the voice of the people. They have fomented anger, divisiveness, even violence among the 68% of Republicans who believe–––even in the absence of evidence–––that the election was rigged.
To these “Trump above country” devotees, America is not a great melting pot in which diverse opinions are forged into public policy. It is, instead, a nation in which the absolute authority is not the Constitution but Donald Trump. They would rather see America torn into shreds than see it heal and prosper under Joe Biden.
This is not normal. It is an anomaly built on a foundation of lies. Trump demands of his followers that his falsehoods be regarded as truth and those who refuse to comply are publicly pilloried. He labeled Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, a traitor and demanded that he resign when Kemp refused to support the president’s false claims that Georgia’s election was fraudulent.
The 2020 presidential election was the 14th of my voting lifetime, and my candidate has won six of those contests. In defeat I was always despondent. But, I soon rallied around my losing candidate’s plea that we unite and take our differences with Republicans into the democratic arena of negotiating the laws and policies for governing America.
The hardest result for me to accept was Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush. But Gore’s concession speech after his narrow and controversial 2000 defeat by George W. Bush put me grudgingly on the right path: “I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside… I accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends…”
A Higher Duty
Then he said something very crucial to a functioning democracy: “While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party… Now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us.”
While that last sentence was probably accurate in 2000, I fear that it is not today. The divisions Biden will inherit in 2021 are not limited to policy differences that can be negotiated and compromised, but they seem to be the products of completely different views of reality, a fundamental split in what is believed to be true and what is believed to be false.
Trump to this day refuses to concede and is marshaling his supporters (74 million-voters strong) in an attempt to overturn election results that have been certified as official and accurate by every state. He is working to undermine the incoming Biden administration by alleging the election was stolen from him through rampant fraud. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, 80% of Trump voters believe that Biden’s election victory was fraudulent.
The divide between Republicans and Democrats is immense. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, a vast majority (80%) of Republicans see Democrats as socialists, while the same majority among Democrats believe Republicans are racists. Each party believes the other threatens “lasting harm” to America.
Navigating a Breach
In a December 27 article in The Washington Post Dan Balz crystalized what is probably the most crucial leadership challenge to a President Joe Biden: “The task of navigating this divided landscape now falls to Biden. He has a robust policy agenda to address some of the most serious problems any new president has faced in decades. But his larger aspiration, as he has said repeatedly, is to heal the country and repair its broken politics. In a nation so divided and hostile toward the opposition, even small progress would count as a significant accomplishment.”
Nothing of lasting significance will be accomplished by the Biden administration without first seeking to repair the breach. I have long believed that the first step toward peace must come from the victor. Seeking to bury the opposition does nothing but heighten the animosity between the two parties. For example, compare the results of allied treatment of Germany after World War One and World War Two. In the first case the victors unforgivingly punished and humiliated the defeated, and the result was another brutal war. In the second case, the allies worked to restore Germany and help the German people survive as their society and economy were rebuilt. The lasting result is a strong American ally.
The long-term survival of the American democracy depends on the willingness and ability of Democrats and Republicans to come together, to stop demonizing one another when we disagree. Both parties should and will fight for their different priorities. But where there is a gap, they should seek a compromise that brings the nation’s politics into kilter and serves the common good. If the elected leaders lead the way in both deed and word, I believe the people will follow. If they don’t, the nation will perish.