Seeing Amanda Gorman reading her brilliant poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration was a stark reminder that nobody needs to hear my clumsy words.1But of course, I’m about to drop over 1500 of those clumsy words on you anyway, because that’s who I am. And it was a reassuring reminder that with a government composed of decent, competent people for a change, I don’t have to have an opinion about everything. “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?” “If we merge mercy with might, and might with light, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.” “…being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
I’ve watched it three times so far, and I still haven’t watched President Biden’s inaugural speech. I’m hoping he at least remembered to mention “American carnage.” The truth is that I don’t really need to see any of the stirring symbolism of the day, because I was moved almost to tears just reading a list of President Biden’s day 1 executive orders, a tangible sign that his administration is going to be working to repair the damage of the last four years.
Honestly, every image coming from the inauguration — which I could only catch briefly while I was trying to get some work done again, after days of unproductive anxiety — was cause for an upswell of emotion and relief. There was such a diversity of speakers, a selection of people from all around the US to contribute to pre-recorded videos, an abundance of LGBT representation, all topped off with a professionally-run press conference that was intelligent, competent, and — imagine! — respectful.
I’ve already seen comments that American politics has become refreshingly boring again. And I get it, but I’ve been excited to see such an earnest display of kindness, decency, and integrity. It’s a relief not just from the spectacular combination of corruption and incompetence of a fear-and-hatred-fueled administration, but of well over a decade of creeping cynicism that preceded it.
There’s this widespread idea that the rhetoric and tone of our new President is good and welcome, but ultimately symbolic. That policy is the only thing that matters. I think this is not only wrong, but dangerously wrong. It’s a large part of what made the disaster of the last four years possible — the repeated insistence that the grab-your-popcorn reality-show media circus was just theater, and the actual government would keep on truckin’ quietly in the background. It’s now been incontrovertibly proven that that’s not the case, even before the federal administration’s greed, narcissism, and incompetence resulted in over 408,000 needless deaths.
It’s easy to understand why people would believe the rhetoric has no practical impact, after seeing all the talk of hope and change from Obama’s election and inauguration result in so much more of the same dysfunction. Policy decisions obviously have real, practical — and sometimes horrific — impact, but it’s that tone and assertion of ideals that has direct, day-to-day impact on everyone in the country. It’s supposed to drive policy, though it’s easy to be skeptical of how much that actually happens in practice. But it absolutely impacts how we perceive and react to policy.
Which is why it’s significant that the key word of so much of President Biden’s post-election messaging, and so much of his inaugural comments, was “unity.”
It’s already been co-opted by Republicans in a craven attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their failures, and to immediately start trying to undermine every action of the new administration. It should come as little surprise that the people who spent the last five-to-eight years shouting “fuck your feelings” are now suddenly upset that we don’t want to cuddle.
It’s also made a lot of us on the left nervous. How can we talk about “unity” when we still haven’t seen any accountability? Not just for the disastrous and violent attempt to actually overthrow democracy, but for the last year of police brutality and corruption, racial injustice, and general social injustice?
I believe that part of the problem is that we’ve been conditioned to think of “unity” as being synonymous with “consensus.” And “democracy” as yet another synonym. Along with the blatant campaign to undermine the ideas of free press, civil service, and democracy itself, there’s been a more subtle campaign to undermine how we think about the most basic, pre-introduction-to-American-Civics concepts.
Part of that is the media’s focus on polls, the repeated idea that “we are a deeply divided nation,” and the lazy division into “red states” and “blue states” or “flyover states” and “coastal elites.” More directly, there’s been the increasing tendency of states to have over-reaching ballot referendums and propositions that put minority rights up for popular vote. For those of us who’ve spent most of our lives believing that of course our goal is for everyone to get what they want, it reinforces the idea that we always have to be not just willing, but eager to compromise, if that means lasting progress. Even to the point of — purely hypothetically speaking — spending years sacrificing your own happiness until other people are “comfortable” with it.
But of course, the only true consensus in our system is that we’ve all agreed that this is the system by which we’ll be governed. No take-backs, even for murderous white supremacists and the craven politicians who incite them into believing that they’re entitled to unfair representation. That’s why the insurrection would have been egregiously unacceptable even if it hadn’t resulted in violence. That’s why the hundreds of Republicans who perpetuated the lie of a “stolen” election have to be held accountable for their role in it. That’s why every single person in attendance at that “rally” is culpable, even if they weren’t directly involved in the violence. It was unforgivably corrupt and anti-American in principle, even before the first window was broken.
It’s no surprise (but still insufferable) that ever since the election, Republicans and their right-wing-media enablers have been repeating the bad-faith argument about “ignoring the votes of over 74 million Americans.” Obviously, it’s just patently stupid on the surface, because it’s always said to defend attempts to throw out the votes of over 81 million Americans. But of course, it’s a completely disingenuous argument. The people repeating it don’t believe it, any more than traitor Ted Cruz actually believes that the Paris Climate Agreement is about appeasing the people of Paris. He’s by many accounts a profoundly stupid man, but he’s not that stupid. He’s simply craven, cowardly, and elitist enough to believe that his constituency is stupid enough to fall for it, and that by running back to the same book of faux-populist Republican talking points, he can distract attention away from his part in an insurrection to overthrow American democracy.
Still, politicians learned long ago that repeating a lie enough times is itself enough to plant a seed in even intelligent and rational people’s minds. So the idea sticks in people’s minds that a system that results in over 74 million losers is somehow unfair. I’ve helped perpetuate it myself, by defending President Biden’s centrism by suggesting that he’s obligated to serve not just his constituency, but the even the slimiest and most dishonest Republican. After all, no matter how irrational and self-defeating their choice was in the last election, don’t we still have to respect the wishes of every American?
The answer is a resounding NO. The responsibility of the government is to do what’s best for everyone. But “what’s best for everyone” only occasionally ends up being the same as “what everyone wants.” I should’ve known better after seeing this played out in the over-long health care “debate” that plagued Obama’s second administration: we ended up with a heavily-compromised system out of an attempt to appease people screaming “tyranny” at the idea of a plan that would make their own lives better. It’s absurd that we’ve allowed Republicans to demonize “socialism” to such a degree that we’ve forgotten the basic truth: pushing for policies that are the best possible outcome for everybody ultimately includes the special interests as well. That’s more or less what everybody means.
So on a practical level, this is just a reminder for myself: don’t forget what “unity” actually means. It doesn’t mean letting crimes go unpunished. It doesn’t mean compromising our integrity until we can get everyone to agree. It means simply working together to achieve an end goal, and putting that end goal above our own personal interests.
Which means that I can stop being so filled with anxiety that so many people made a horrific choice for President, not once but twice. I don’t have to make up excuses for them like the “economic anxiety” lie that the media is so fond of. I don’t have to worry that we’re divided; I only have to worry about whether they’re getting in the way. I don’t have to worry that they’re driven by fear or hatred; I just have to trust that we’ve finally put a government in place that’s going to try to address the issues they’re afraid of, but in a manner that’s not driven by fear, hatred, and division.
I’m still not a fan of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential campaigns, but I am more on-board with his message than I’ve ever been. We can’t help people by telling them that their irrational anger and fear is real and valid. The only way to help people is to think of ourselves as communities that are capable of solving the real problems that affect the entire community. Not as a bunch of special interests.
As they metaphor goes: they can either jump on the train, or get left behind. We’ve got to stop feeling like it’s our obligation to wait for them to catch up.