How Biden can reframe and reclaim patriotism, faith, freedom, and equality
When “facts become fungible, we’re lost,” George Packer recently reminded us. But “the most durable narratives,” Packer added, are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.”
The reality described by Packer did not change when Donald Trump lost the presidential election. After all, a substantial majority of Republicans still maintain that the outcome was rigged.
President Biden clearly understands the existential danger posed by our toxic, tribal, polarized partisan politics. In his inaugural address, Biden promised to be a president “for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did.” He encouraged his fellow Americans to “see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors — speaking to each other with dignity and respect.”
Biden has a full plate: a pandemic; a climate crisis; crumbling infrastructure; grotesque and growing disparities in wealth and income; domestic terrorism; restrictions on voting; mass shootings; cyber hacks; threats from Russia and China. No task is more important, however, than repairing a house divided against itself.
An extended unity tour to blue, red, and purple states would enable Biden (who knows that about 10 percent of Bernie Sanders’s supporters defected to Trump in 2016) to demonstrate to Americans who do not look or talk like him that he understands the devastating impact on families and communities of deindustrialization, globalization, automation, and the decline of unions. The tour would give him opportunities to reframe and reclaim patriotism, faith, freedom, and equality as precious democratic (and, by implication, Democratic) principles. He should reflect, candidly, about what the public health crisis has revealed about the relationship between each of us and all of us — and the differential impact of COVID-19 on Wall Street and Main Street; executives, nurses’ aides, and grocery store clerks; whites, Blacks, and Latinos. The president should appeal, as Abraham Lincoln did in his First Inaugural Address, to “the mystic chords of memory… [that] will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Biden should consider holding a town hall meeting once a month, rotating among red, blue, and purple states, in urban and rural settings, large and small. Tickets should be distributed in equal proportion to voters registered as Democrats, Republicans, and independents. A high-ranking Republican official should be invited to speak before Biden steps up to the podium. Local party officials (and, say, The League of Women Voters) should select the people (two Democrats, two Republicans, two independents) who will pose questions to the president. Before the meeting ends, President Biden should give attendees (and anyone tuning in on radio, TV, or the internet) his email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the White House phone number for comments (1-202-456-1111).
Biden should agree to be interviewed once a month by three reporters: a progressive, a conservative, and a moderate. He might choose, for example, Amna Nawaz of PBS, Chris Wallace of Fox News, and Shephard Smith of CNBC. As in press conferences, the president could begin with an announcement. Each hour-long session should then be devoted to a single topic: the economy, infrastructure, the pandemic, voting rights, immigration, race, foreign policy. Biden should also write a weekly syndicated column, designed for placement in conservative, progressive, and non-partisan newspapers and websites.
As he travels throughout the country, Biden — the most openly religious president since Jimmy Carter — should attend (but not speak at) services at houses of worship. His choices should reflect the extraordinary religious diversity in the United States. He should also visit elementary schools and hospitals in, say, Detroit, Dallas, Dubuque, Appleton, Apache Junction and Apalachicola.
Although Biden might succeed in lowering the temperature and slowing the spread of conspiracy theories, he should not expect a short-term political payoff from these initiatives. The president must play a long game, in which narratives that appeal to the deepest needs, desires, and better angels of Americans, delivered by a civil, compassionate, and competent leader who listens, respects facts, laws, and democratic norms, do, indeed, prove to be the most durable.
Done well, a unity tour could lay a foundation enabling the United States to truly build back better.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”