“This is the time to heal in America,” Joe Biden said in his victory speech Saturday night. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.” This kind of rhetoric is perhaps inevitable in American politics, particularly in the wake of a hard-fought election campaign and after almost four years of Donald Trump. Biden continued with the usual appeal for Americans to come together as, well… Americans. “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”
Bromides like this are all part of the ritual of electoral politics. It is expected that the victor in even the hardest, most divisive political campaign will step forward, commend their rival, and call for all Americans to pull together in common cause. Even Donald Trump struck that note four years ago on the evening of his startling election victory. “Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together,” he said. “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.”
The difference between 2016 and today is that then-presumptive president-elect Donald Trump almost certainly did not believe the words he was saying – though most Americans did, hoping it meant he would not be as bad as everyone feared. (He turned out to be much, much worse.) Biden, however, certainly does believe what he said, as completely as he believes in the resurrection and the second coming.
The presumptive president-elect (he doesn’t become president-elect until the Electoral College, you know, elects him) is the heir to a long tradition of Vital Center liberalism that runs through John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to the broad Democratic Party coalition of today. In his 1949 book, The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger enunciated the catechism of “the fundamental faith of contemporary liberalism” which is “away from fanaticism; it is toward compromise, persuasion, and consent in politics, toward tolerance and diversity in society.” Liberalism, for Schlesinger, was faith in good, practical sense – virtues he believed Americans had in abundance. And those virtues, Daniel Bell wrote in The End of Ideology a decade later, combined with continued economic growth, expanding prosperity, and sensible management, had made ideology obsolete.
That’s the kind of thinking that Biden, who was elected to his first public office in 1969, grew up in – a “can-do” big-tent liberalism that somehow survived the Vietnam War and the economic contractions of the 1970s. It is a managerial utopianism that is confident in the institutions of American democracy to move “toward compromise, persuasion, and consent.” All differences are political, in this thinking; that is, there might differences of policy and approach but, in the self-consciously post-ideological thinking of Vital Center liberalism, there are no disagreements on goals – we all want a good life for everyone – or fundamental worldviews. We’re all Americans here, after all, and we’re too sensible to let ideology get between us.
Biden’s tragic flaw, however, is that he is dead wrong about this. If the last four years have shown anything, it is that the division in American society is not merely political but between fundamentally-opposed worldviews. The movement of grievance and fear that coalesced around President Trump and swept him to power in 2016 inhabits an ideological world incompatible with the lived reality of the voters who elected Biden. To this movement, Biden is thin edge of a wedge of radical socialism, race mixing, globalizm, and pedophilia bent on the destruction of Christian America and all things holy.
More importantly, it denies the very legitimacy of the democracy that Biden believes “works” and which he hopes will bring the country together. The Magaists, who after all are committed to “make American great again,” imagine themselves as the heirs of the original parties to the social contract in 1776. In their minds, this contract has been distorted and perverted by a corrupt state that serves the interests of newcomers and outsiders. They believe that they are the original and authentic Americans and they are determined to “take their country back” from a state that insists on the rights of others.
Thus, President Trump’s full-court assault on civil liberties, constitutional constraints on power exercised on their behalf and on basic human decency was not incidental – it was the point of the exercise. Indeed, if you look at the president’s approval ratings since his inauguration, throughout all the scandals, and as he thumbed his nose at democracy itself, you see an almost-straight line. Any variations are fully within the plus-or-minus three percent margin of modern polling, steady at 37-40 percent. This is unprecedented in the 75 years since approval polling began, and what it shows is that the Magaist movement does not support any specific policies or initiatives, for that would show rising and falling approval depending on the policy, but the leader himself and an unshakeable belief system.
This is ideology and the problem is that it is impervious to reason. It begins with a premise like “America is perfect,” and proceeds from there to explain why this perfect nation has not delivered the promises of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – namely that it has been corrupted by outsiders and the liberal state. These conclusions are resistant to reason because Magaists would have to interrogate their basic premise: and that would mean destroying their worldview. It can happen – think of people who leave cults – but it is traumatic and it’s a bit much to expect of, say 70 million people.
Consequently, we must ask whether it is even desirable to try to reason with Magaism, as Biden proposes. Even assuming that the divide is political rather than ideological, reasoning with them will inevitably take the form of negotiation and compromise. This means giving something up, so we need to ask what we are willing to negotiate away and where we are willing to compromise. What price are we willing to pay for healing and unity? Do we give up Roe v. Wade in order to secure protections for LGBTQ people? Do we compromise on how many summary executions of African Americans are acceptable? Which children will we hold in cages?
These are not abstract issues, and the question is not without precedent. We have been here before. In 1850, as the United States stumbled toward civil war, the sober men of American politics struck a compromise between the principle that all human beings are, and should be, free and an ideology that held some humans do not deserve freedom because of their race. It admitted California as a free state, established the principle of popular sovereignty to determine whether a state would allow slavery when it was admitted to the Union, and passed a Fugitive Slave Law that invalidated state personal liberty laws and enshrined slave owners’ property rights even where slavery was illegal. The war was averted for a decade. But Abraham Lincoln wisely observed that compromise with an uncompromising ideology of hate was impossible. America, he said in 1858, “must become all one thing or all the other.”
Our task ahead is to root-out and destroy the ideology of power and hate promoted by President Trump for the last four years, and not to legitimize it by giving it a fair hearing. Magaism must be neutralized, its voice marginalized and silenced. Only then can we speak of healing.