How Joe Biden can achieve unity
President Biden has promised to work as hard for those who did not vote for him as for those who did. But this promise will take a different kind of politics. Where the 2020 campaign focused on purple states, Biden now needs a team to reach voters in red states that supported Donald Trump. In such states, divisive rhetoric from Trump has induced many Americans to view the new administration with suspicion or even hostility, as some rejectionists may still favor extreme action against the transfer of power and must be treated as serious threats to our democracy.
We write as a theorist and a practitioner of state building who have had work to back democratic governments in foreign lands. Ever since 9/11, plenty has been written about a counterinsurgency doctrine as it was practiced in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. After the riots at the Capitol this month, however, our gaze must shift inward to homegrown violence within our national borders. State building lessons that were learned in foreign conflicts must now be applied at home.
The most important of these lessons is that distrust in government can turn virulent in communities where people have no sense that national leaders care about their problems. People in communities can only start to trust a government when they have someone who will listen to them and will convey their concerns to federal officials. Such local outreach is critical even when it is not possible to reach full consensus for all issues and even while certain extremists might seek conflict.
Congress is the institution that brings local perspectives to the center of government. But many Republican lawmakers might consider it against their political interest to assist Biden in his pledge to serve all Americans. History gives us ample reason to fear that Republican lawmakers could now refuse to work with this Democratic administration.
The new administration needs another strategy to reach out to people in the districts that went for Trump by wide margins. Biden and members of his administration should make plans to visit such districts. They should initiate discussions with citizens and local officials about how the federal government can better serve their communities, and on what people can do to find common ground and defuse threats of violence.
In the vital outreach to voters whose Republican lawmakers continue to reject bipartisan work in Congress, Biden should get essential guidance from the Democratic candidates who recently campaigned to represent these districts. These discussions will be hard and should include local Republican officials who are willing to take part. Local Democrats who know these districts could help find local Republicans who are ready to engage in constructive discussions about public concerns.
In 2020, one of us ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in one red gerrymandered district in Utah and engaged with Republican voters there. Over 8,000 miles were traversed to places where Democratic candidates were not expected to visit, in small towns near alfalfa fields and ranches amidst red rock deserts. Blunt conversations were held with gun owners, the uninsured, the unemployed, people against masks, and other Trump supporters. Points of consensus were found in the importance of keeping rural post offices open and bolstering health care access.
These visits to red Utah counties did not turn them blue in the election, but the four Democratic candidates for Congress together earned more than 500,000 votes. They can help the administration connect with voters in their districts. The same can be said for Democratic candidates who ran and lost in many other Republican states. The administration has signaled its intent to examine national monument boundaries in Utah. Cases such as this will be crucial tests of the federal government to work with local officials on proposals that take shared interests into account.
The goal of such outreach to Republicans in red states should not be to make them Democrats but to remind them that they should expect both parties to offer policies that improve their lives and protect communities. Americans must confront the divisive legacy of campaign arguments that an entire party was somehow trying to steal or destroy the country. The whole point of our democracy is that voters can benefit from two parties competing to offer them better public service. Biden should act now to reaffirm this vital truth in conservative areas of the country.
Roger Myerson is the David Pearson service professor with global conflict studies at the Harris School of Public Policy and the Griffin Department of Economics in the University of Chicago and a Nobel Laureate in economic science. Kael Weston was a Democratic candidate for Congress from Utah and served as a former official of the State Department in the Middle East.