It’s been said of Abraham Lincoln that he had a “mystical” devotion to the idea of Union. His conviction that the American states were united in an indissoluble bond is what braced him through the monstrous burdens he bore. It’s not too much to say that the very existence of this country owes in large part to the stubborn faith of that sorrowful man. He held to Union even when military reversals, political reality and common sense all counseled against it.
Some ghost of Lincoln haunted President Joe Biden’s inaugural address on Wednesday. Granted, Biden faces no military reversals. On the other hand, he delivered his speech at a crime scene, the west front of the U.S. Capitol, which, not three weeks ago, was breached by a howling mob of traitors, white supremacists and goons all too starkly reflective of what the Republican Party has devolved to. That deadly event, plus political reality and maybe even common sense, all inveigh heavily against the theme of the new president’s inaugural address. Which, like Lincoln’s first inaugural address, was union.
“On this January day,” said Biden, “my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people, uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things … “
Given that Lincoln restored a nation through sheer force of will, one is loathe to bet against Biden. Indeed, his buoyant optimism was as invigorating as ice water in August. It’s important to have a president who peddles hope instead of fear. If we didn’t know that before, surely we know it now.
Yet, as has been previously noted in this space, unity is a thing more easily said than done. That’s because our primary divisions are not political. If they were, one could expect to find common ground between them. But our divisions are tribal.
And there is literally no way for decent people to “unite” with racism, anti-Semitism or homophobia. As 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman reminded us from the Capitol podium, “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
But how shall we repair the past — including the very recent past? Well, to start, let’s be honest about it. When there has been unity in this country, it has almost always sprung from a sense of national purpose. Unfortunately, Republicans have acknowledged no higher purpose in recent years than to “unite the right” — to invoke a not-quite random phrase — against the rest of us.
So the success of Biden’s call will largely depend on whether he’s able to persuade them to disenthrall themselves from selling grievance, lies and tribal division to their base. Because Barack Obama was right when he said on election night in 2008, “Change has come to America.” Muslims will never return to the margins, nor women to the kitchen, or gays to the closet, nor Black people to the back of the bus.
This moment, then, is a wake-up call. Democracy is fragile, and we’ve come closer to losing it than any generation since Lincoln’s. We all should want to answer Biden’s call to save it. But we all should also understand that it cannot be and it will not be saved at the expense of those who have too often and for too long been shut out of America’s lofty ideals. We, too, sing America. Let the GOP learn to accept this. Then “unity” will take care of itself.