Joe Biden’s inability to bring about the unity he espouses will only be partially his fault. If his goal is unity, his approach so far is wholly insufficient. To see this, we need not demonize or castigate him. It’s simply to recognize that he is average and that these are exceptional times. We live in a populist era, with a series of rising radical movements sweeping the country. The politicians aren’t to blame for that, the people are. The people brought Trump into office. The people took Bernie Sanders from mediocrity to hallowed meme. The people rewarded "The Resistance" and the "Occupyers." Politicians can’t contain this era of rough populism and, this is important, nor is it their responsibility to.
As we’ve seen in just the past few days, it is likely that the purpose of the talk of unity is as a rhetorical cudgel, one that will be used to hammer Republicans in a few months as Biden explains why he’s been forced to move from executive orders to the kind of invented and ahistorical executive actions Obama pioneered. Or to support destabilizing democracy reform proposals after his message of unity couldn’t break through Republican – welcome back a word that has had a four-year break – intransigence, thus leaving no other choice but to move in a direction he’ll describe as forward.
I’m not writing this piece to dunk on the exposure of Biden as a committed partisan. Instead, I’m arguing that even if we do give Joe Biden the credibility he asks for, if we take him at his word that he really does want to unify the country, and he even manages to avoid the executive vices above, we still are forced to conclude that when it comes to unity, we won’t get there from here.
The Biden Support Network, comprised of the elite media, Hollywood, academia, and the remaining shells of once respectable news organizations, are underestimating the depth of the gulf between themselves and the other side. What used to work won’t, not anymore. The tactics of the Obama era, the celebrities testifying on Capitol Hill, the fawning late-night hosts, the shared reality of pop culture, the propagandic echo chamber those institutions coordinate together to create, it’s all diminishing returns at this point outside of rallying the base. The cultural gulf is larger. We’re further adrift from each other than those same measures can address.
I am not writing this piece to dunk on tin-eared celebrities or arrogant journalists. The point – I hope – is something bigger. If Biden continues to take this approach, to rely on a top-down elite-driven pop culture-led public campaign, he will fail. We are not a uniform people, and suspicion of federal intentions are as white-hot as they were in January 2017 when hundreds of thousands marched on DC and Summer 2020 when parts of it were set on fire. My fear is that the approach we’re currently seeing is all that Biden knows, all that he’s capable of.
Against this insufficient approach the waves of populism will continue to crash, here in an era of mass assassination attempts, widespread protests turned violent, and armed incursions into the Capitol building. The straight talk Biden supposedly favors is not found in convincing Americans they can disagree without hating each other, a valid but insufficient point. The straight talk is in helping Americans understand that the gulf in our competing belief systems is the predicate for our instability. We are, regrettably and actually, that divided. The straight talk would tell of a presidency grown beyond proper bounds, and a unifier would limit the use of extra-constitutional executive action and explain that restraint at the State of the Union on 23 February.
The executive branch will embark soon on an expanded, and not inappropriate, public messaging effort to increase vaccine acceptance amongst the people. That is likely a reasonable use of federal power, as clunky as federal messaging tends to be. For this and other common initiatives, Biden can rely on the traditional Democratic playbook, enrolling all the right actors and opinion-shapers, creating cringeworthy ads intended to appeal to individual ethnic and racial communities, and generally relying on the same few institutional pillars. It’s natural for them to think that’s the right way forward, to underestimate the separation when you are embraced by the major cultural institutions. But this approach, these same well-worn pathways, will not serve the America of today well. The degree of alienation in America today requires a different toolkit from when our culture was more uniform. Those who fail to see this gulf, to recognize it and plan to it, will fail. Pulling upon the mystic cords of national memory when those cords are so badly frayed results in a diminished utility of legitimate government action to all our peril.