State of Disunion
Can America Be Governed?
The Trump administration corroded our democracy. And no matter his integrity, our President-Elect may not have the power to restore it.
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With every announcement, Cabinet selection, and policy promise made, President-Elect Joe Biden demonstrates that we are not merely transitioning between presidential administrations, but from leadership in constant chaos to a vision of calm certainty. As the view of his future administration comes into focus, Biden reassures us that he will maintain norms, emphasize competence, and strive for comity; he will, in short, choose to govern. The question is not whether Joe Biden is capable of successfully steering the ship of state, but whether Trump voters and elected Republicans will allow him to do so.
Having run a campaign on restoration—of logic, compassion, governance—Biden’s transition and the choices therein have focused entirely on the business at hand: planning how he will run the country. He has announced a goal of 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in his First 100 Days, giving clarity and direction in the midst of a pandemic setting daily records for deadliness in American history. Of his Cabinet picks, none is a radical: All are experienced and products of the systems they would be responsible for running. Each decision reflects faith in the system to work, either by investing good will in the Senate confirmation process, reaffirming belief in the function of national healthcare and insurance infrastructure, or the way in which each announcement is matter-of-factly discussed, released, and promoted as a typical transfer of power. The message is clear: The system can—and will—be repaired.
And perhaps that would be possible, if Trump alone had damaged it.
But as the current occupant of the Oval Office has assaulted and attacked the election with frivolous lawsuits and absurd conspiracies, he has been buoyed at every turn by the Republican Party that elected him to power. In a last-ditch attempt to steal the election before the meeting and final confirmation of the Electoral College, a majority of Republican state Attorneys General and Congressional Republicans backed a challenge to the Supreme Court to overturn the election results in key states providing Biden’s unassailable Electoral College majority. More Republicans still have denied or remained silent on whether Biden is even the official President-Elect. From the moment it was clear that Biden had emerged victorious in the presidential election, elected Republicans at every level have stymied his transition, undermined his legitimacy, and questioned the worthiness and citizenship of his coalition. And most dangerously, while they have failed to mount effective legal challenges to the popular will, Republicans have convinced millions of Americans that the certified and indisputable electoral majorities are rigged against them.
Elections—the foundations of our government, the essence of representative authority—have transformed for millions of people, from an imperfect reflection of popular will to a mortal contest of ideology where Republicans have either prevailed through tenacity and strength or been cheated from victory. With a concentrated and constant campaign, Republicans have successfully convinced more than a third of the country that there is no such thing as a legitimate government run by Democrats. The consequence is a country with millions of voters in conflict about whether our elections are choices or impositions, if majoritarian sentiment is real or fabricated, if Joe Biden’s victory is a validation of our country or a crime against it. With a government that rests precariously upon the consensus of popular sovereignty, Republicans have not only encouraged 1 in 3 voters to deny the authority of the government, but to deny that the other 2 in 3 voters even exist.
It is not a matter of messaging or outreach, entreaties or fact. This is not a mere disagreement in policy or perspective. As a country, we have come into conflict about the nature of government itself. And while it would be easy to lay this at the feet of Republican officials, they too are reflections of popular sentiment. They are rewarded with power and prestige for each newly outrageous action against the collective will of the diverse majority because it is what their overwhelmingly white voters seek. Seeped in years of narratives that only conservatives were “real Americans,” that their political opposition did not truly love this country or belong in it, that any zeal, any extremism in defense of liberty was no vice have resulted in a party with every incentive to stoke the worst in their voters, and a voting base with an unshakeable control over their party.
President-Elect Biden has promised to be a president for all Americans, but it is impossible to forward interests that fundamentally contradict one another. More than 81 million voters have cast ballots in favor of functional government—one that sees their problems and tries to solve them. Against them, 47% of the country asked for the violence of the pandemic and the corruption and the hatred to continue, to cow the opposition into submission, and to rule rather than govern. There is no means to reconcile them. And still, Biden tries.
Already, the President-Elect has asked for his winning coalition to make their needs smaller, make their voices softer as to better accommodate political opponents who refuse to acknowledge his electoral victory and popular authority. He largely refrained from attacking the Republican Party itself during the election, and has rarely done so after his victory, even with their desperate and dramatic efforts to unmake the peaceful transfer of power. Biden tries to consolidate the consent of the governed, even as millions angrily promise to deny it.
We live in a thousand intersecting crises born of reactionary Republican rage at a world in flux. It is not our ideology, but our representation, our system of government, our very lives that exist in opposition to GOP politics. Our fragile union feels splintered, hammered at the seams. Moderation cannot solve the scale of the problems; radicalism cannot reconcile our differences. Yet, Joe Biden must find a way to bind us together to face the challenges of the 21st century. For as said by the man who bound up the wounds of a broken nation more than a century and a half ago, we are not a country that can live in halves; we must be all one thing, or another.
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