On Tuesday, the eve of the presidential inauguration, then-President-elect Joe Biden stood on the perimeter of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to honor the more than 400,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus. In his brief remarks, he said, “To heal, we must remember; it’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.” Those words set the tone for the next day’s peaceful transfer of power, which had been endangered just two weeks prior by a violent coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol that left five people dead.
The threats to the future prosperity of the United States are multiple: the pandemic, near economic collapse, insurgent white-supremacist extremism and antidemocratic forces, and myriad systemic racial inequalities. But watching the inauguration, where President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris recited an oath of service to the nation and fidelity to the Constitution, felt reparative. Rituals and traditions have an anchoring effect that counters moments of upheaval. Even as political theater, Wednesday’s spectacle was a temporary but necessary balm for the wounds acquired from a chaotic and destructive Trump presidency. In his address, Biden emphasized the resilience of democratic order: “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words,” he said. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
Much has been made of the word unity in the past year. After the Capitol attack on January 6, many Republican legislators called for unity, responding to the righteous ire from their fellow lawmakers who demanded investigations, arrests, and impeachment. The unity theme was also a main pillar of the Biden-Harris campaign, messaging intended to implore the nation to fight for a new future. Unity, for some, is pure sentiment. A quick, uncomplicated cure-all that is achieved merely by being summoned. For others, however, unity calls for hard work and accountability, or it risks granting unearned forgiveness for harmful transgressions, papering over deep injustices.
To his credit, Biden acknowledged the daunting challenge of achieving unity in a nation that hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War: “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” he said on the Capitol steps. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial, and victory is never assured.” The inauguration backdrop of an abnormally empty Washington, D.C., fortified by 25,000 National Guard troops, dramatized that battle, showing the enormous distance between the unity ideal and the country’s stark reality.
Biden called white supremacy by its name and rejected euphemistic language that obscures meaning. Although these were welcome acknowledgments, questing for unity without executable ways to hold bad actors accountable will render the pursuit useless. Disunion was a cornerstone of the previous administration: family separation at the border; the banning of immigrants from Muslim-majority nations; the telegraphing of support for white supremacists; and the political weaponization of the coronavirus pandemic, to name a few examples. To achieve unity moving forward requires swift and decisive steps from lawmakers to correct these wrongs and stamp out their effects through clear policy initiatives.
When Frederick Douglass addressed the American Anti-Slavery Society in December 1863, he named concrete terms for what unity would necessitate—“making every slave free, and every free man a voter.” Douglass imagined an America that integrated 4 million African Americans into the body politic, and emphasized that solidarity would mean nothing unless backed by action. These principles were embodied in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments introduced after the Civil War, but still needed forceful implementation and support from the federal government. President Andrew Johnson’s lax approach to the enforcement of these reunification provisos led to the re-entrenchment of slavocracy’s tenets and the continued disenfranchisement of Black Americans. It is a prime example of what happens when calls for unity are unaccompanied by action: a return to the status quo.
Biden’s inaugural address acknowledged “the work ahead of us” and attempted to map a path forward, one that provides space for civil disagreement rather than “total war.” But the president’s unique challenge is that his vision for unity puts him at odds with his impulse for compromise with Republicans who have consistently evaded accountability and consequences for their actions. For now, the image of Wednesday’s multiracial, bipartisan dais at least demonstrated for Americans this administration’s commitment to the democratic experiment. Whether that performance of unity amounts to more than just that depends on Biden’s ability to move past sentiment and into hard work.