Biden can't heal the country
Winding down his last week on the campaign trail, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is preaching a message of healing. "Today I'm here at Warm Springs because I want to talk about how we're going to heal our nation," he said Tuesday from a small Georgia town where Franklin Delano Roosevelt built a resort for polio patients. "The divisions in our nation are getting wider," Biden continued:
[M]any wonder, has it gone too far? Have we passed the point of no return? Has the heart of this nation turned to stone? I don't think so. I refuse to believe it. [ ... ] I'm running as a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American president. I'll work with Democrats and Republicans. I'll work as hard for those who don't support me as for those who do. [ ... ] And yes, we can restore our soul and save our country. [Joe Biden, via Rev]
There's an alluring normalcy and comity here, but Biden's promise is not and cannot be true. Should he be elected, Biden may be able to make the presidency less of an aggravating factor in our political division, if only by making it easier for Americans to forget about the president entirely for longer stretches than President Trump's omnipresence has permitted these past four years. But forgetting our division is not the same as healing it.
What Biden can realistically offer, if I may extend his medical metaphor, is a Band-Aid. I don't mean that in the dismissive sense in which it is often used — a Band-Aid is not nothing. Electing Biden might be analogous to cleaning up a skinned knee, taking out the bits of gravel embedded in the cuts, and putting a bandage on top. This is helpful for healing, but it doesn't heal. The body must heal itself.
It is questionable whether there is such a thing as a "president who doesn't divide us, but unites us," as Biden pledges to be. I suspect the bully pulpit and scope of power of the modern office don't allow for that possibility. There is simply too much at stake for the position to be anything but divisive.
That's so even of the comparatively anodyne Biden, whose victory nine in 10 Trump supporters believe would "result in lasting harm to the country." (Exactly the same proportion of Biden supporters say the same of Trump's potential re-election.) A 2019 study found four in 10 Democrats and Republicans think the opposing party is "not just worse for politics" but "downright evil." The common thinking among Biden's opponents, enthusiastically propagated by Trump himself, is that Biden is a Trojan horse for socialism and the radical left, albeit maybe an unwitting one. These beliefs won't dissipate after the election, no matter how much Biden reaches across the aisle. Optimism loses to fear, disgust, and tribalism.
Yet even if we say, for the sake of argument, that a President Biden could be a net force for unity, we're left with the same problem: It's not enough. The president can't heal our country's division. The Trump administration is at least as much a symptom as a cause of the illness in our politics, and that illness won't go away with Trump's departure, whether next year or in 2025. Clean away the gravel, but the knee is still skinned.
Our illness is a result both of culture and institutions of governance. The cultural etiology is what my colleague Matthew Walther has dubbed "middle-finger voting," politics for the sake of "seeing one's real or perceived enemies discomfited." The point is not governance, but power for its own sake; not adherence to principles but punishing those we deem a threat to us and ours.
This mindset is not universal among Americans, and most of those who call their partisan opponents "downright evil" likely have friends and family whom they love across party lines. But in the turn from those specific relationships to national politics, a fever sets in. "[W]hat defines Republicans and Democrats isn't programs or beliefs or ideology," writes J.D. Tucille at Reason; "it's achieving power and destroying the enemy in the process." When "platforms and ideas don't really matter," he adds, "there's no room for finding common ground or cutting deals" on policy, because uncompromising control is the very point.
Tucille argues "the only way to keep the peace is to make sure there's no prize to be won," to reduce the power available so partisan animosities are accordingly scaled down. Make the presidency less divisive by making it less desirable. I agree, wholeheartedly. But I can't see how that would happen without dramatic change to our political culture, and I can't see how the political culture would change while our institutions constantly reinforce it, and I can't see how the institutions will change while the culture — well, you get it.
Biden says he can interrupt that vicious cycle at the cultural node. However sincere, he's wrong. A president might be able to refrain from exacerbating our political division, but he can't heal it. We have to heal ourselves, culturally and institutionally, and I'm not sure we'll prove capable. I'm not sure we really want to try.