Biden will not overcome the division because neither Democrats nor Republicans want that. Perhaps this is OK.
Reconciliation, forgiveness, healing. Those are the unmistakably religious incantations that are being invoked today when it comes to the expectations people have of Joe Biden as he enters his new office in January 2021. It’s said that he should now unite the country. We shouldn’t hesitate to say what is intellectually obvious: No individual politician can end a structural design which has been growing more aggravated for decades.
More interesting is the fact that the idea of reconciliation and overcoming differences is self-contradictory, and in some ways, even hypocritical. For the 70 million voters who cast their vote for Donald Trump, the desire for reconciliation is limited anyway. Some among them have likely grown weary of the permanent battle of cultures and would, therefore, perhaps be ready to reconciliation a chance.
The overwhelming share of these voters, however, including those who are predominantly politically active and therefore a dominant force, interpret every outstretched hand as a further declaration of war. One doesn’t even need to study the results of the disastrous surveys that have already recognized this.
Recent history best reveals the revival performance we will now see. Barack Obama’s path to the White House in 2008, after all, was literally paved with the message of redemption to reunite the country. There was no conservative America, and no liberal America, Obama said, but, naturally, only the United States of America.
Obama Already Failed in This Mission
After winning the election, Obama kept the George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, and part of the Bush health care reform. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), was based on ideas that originated in conservative think tanks. None of it bore fruit. A not inconsiderable part of the Republican Party base was already descending into a stream of conspiracy theories.
In any case, reconciliation is more difficult for the loser than the winner, but it was especially so in this case, because Obama’s victory signaled that the demographic shift in the country had now reached the center of power. And for many conservatives, Obama’s considerably cold technocratic attitude – the idea that there was an overriding reason, and the conflict between parties was only troubling collateral – also had a threatening hegemonic tone that defined any opposition as purely an irrational rearguard reaction.
What is certain is that America’s conservatives remained in their trenches. And after 12 years of hatred, that is exactly where they will sit tight all the more, presumably well supplied by the outrage machine of conservative media, which has no interest at all in easing the tension, since they have made a pile of money from political hysteria over the past three decades.
The issue regarding left-leaning liberal America is psychologically much more complicated. Because there, in spite of Obama’s “failure,” the notion of depolarization is still present. Presumably that was even one of the reasons Biden came out on top at the end of the primaries: because people believed the country would get some peace with him and hoped he would not unleash the kind of toxic reaction from the political right as Hillary Clinton and Obama did.
Meanwhile, many fractions within the party see the matter quite differently. For neither the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement nor the socialist (social-democratic) wing of the party sees reconciliation as the primary goal. On the contrary: It is a question of not only cleaning up after four years of Trump, but of basically making a clean break with the country’s history up to now.
Purification Instead of Reconciliation
How should reconciliation succeed if you conceive of the other side as the defender of systematic racism or even as a bunch of reactionary proto-facists? Should you mitigate your own agenda just so that you don’t fill the “other side” with anxiety? Hardly. It’s not just a matter of content. The opinion of a large part of the party is that it is time to finally take off the velvet gloves in political conflicts.
In 2016, Michelle Obama’s motto, “When they go low, we go high” was still very popular. But after four years of an autocrat taking an ax to American democracy, it feels strangely disconnected from reality.
Thus, American’s left wing has long discussed strategies that are not aimed at reconciliation, but instead the possibility of being the majority in the future; increasing the number of judges on the Supreme Court, making Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico states to create new conditions for a majority in the Electoral College, and much more.
The book “It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics” by David Faris is very popular among left-leaning Democrats. Many political scientists warn against what is called tit-for-tat polarization: a constantly self-reinforcing polarization in which the breaking of norms and rules by one side raises the other side’s readiness to escalate.
Even if one assumes that such theories are beside the point because the Republicans have already overstepped all boundaries, and it is now necessary to fight fire with fire, this certainly does not contribute to overcoming the rifts. Let us consider one more point that perhaps shows most incisively how logically irreconcilable views face one other. One of the many reasons for the polarization in the U.S. is the total politicization of all aspects of life.
From media consumption to leisure behavior right up to the dating market, political identity has eaten its way into all aspects of life. In this respect, it would be good for the country if there were at least an effort to allow more islands of nonpolitical togetherness, places where the continual ideological ferment might subside and people were not constantly reminded of their differences.
Islands of Nonpolitical Encounters
Following this thought, one would need to make a case for depoliticizing sports, so that they are no longer the vehicle for the fight against racism, something which has led many Republicans to tune out the National Basketball Association, and listen increasingly less often to the National Football League in America.
The so-inclined Taz* reader has long since noticed that one ends up with positions which are the opposite of what the left is seeking, which of course assumes (like all leftists all the time) that everything is political anyway, especially the ostensibly nonpolitical, which therefore needs to be exposed and unmasked all the more urgently.
Expressed differently, the American left does not want reconciliation; it wants purification, and purification of the other side, and if that doesn’t work, then it hopes that demographic trends in the country will eventually solve the problem on its own, also an ambitious project, but a different one. And maybe it’s true. Maybe the longing for reconciliation and depolarization is actually a blasé centrist dream.
Perhaps this is the typical thought of people who prefer not to strive for major change and primarily long for stability because they are not really at great odds with the status quo. And it could certainly be argued against this position that real changes have almost always been won against fierce resistance. Occasionally, polarization is therefore just the price that we must pay for progress.
A good example of that, by the way, is, of all things, the primary conflict of American politics in the 1960s, setting a dynamic in motion that continues to the present. Until the ‘60s, U.S. politics were viewed as being shaped by consensus. At the time, both parties had liberal and conservative wings; there was great ideological overlap, which explains the immense capacity for compromise.
No Change without Resistance
That remained the case until the Democrats finally resolved to vigorously support Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement, and essentially ended racial segregation in the South with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The consequence was that conservative voters in the South who up to then had been a solid base for the party collectively changed sides and began to vote Republican.
This ended the extreme heterogeneity that had distinguished Democrats and Republicans up to then, and laid the foundation for today’s duality. The Civil Rights Act that ended legal discrimination polarized the country, and that was as right as it was necessary. Maybe we shouldn’t expect any reconciliation, healing or whatever transcendent concepts currently drive expectations.
Perhaps we should be satisfied if things don’t escalate any further. For that, you don’t even need to reconcile. After all, it is said that you make peace with your enemies.
*Translator’s note: “Taz” refers to Die Tageszeitung, the publication in which this article appeared.