Many Americans were taken aback when 126 members of Congress joined a specious lawsuit to overturn last month’s presidential election. It appeared to be the latest, most glaring evidence that the country’s commitment to its constitutional system is in decline. But there’s reason for hope. Hyperbolic calls to abandon the core institutions of American life—demands to forsake capitalism from the left, and vicious, norm-busting partisanship from
Republicans—were defeated handily this year. The result of the presidential election showed that beyond repudiating President Trump, Americans are seeking renewal and revitalization.
To be sure, polarization is a real and serious problem. But this election was less about whether the U.S. would tack left or right, and more about whether the country would embrace compassion. Americans rejected the radical vituperation proselytized on the fringes and chose the optimistic tradition of social justice associated with Pope John XXIII. (I know that may sound strange coming from a practicing Jew, but here we are.) The man who decisively defeated Mr. Trump reflects the “silent majority” of Americans, who believe in renewing rather than revolutionizing our political and economic systems. Rooted in faith,
promise to “save the soul of the nation” reflected his determination to address the political, economic and cultural alienation that fuels fervor on the far right and left alike.
Those who feel vindicated by Mr. Biden’s victory shouldn’t lose sight of how we got here—or how we got President Trump four years ago. A significant minority of the country is angry, and their anger is, at root, entirely legitimate. Trump supporters and the far left both sense that in today’s America the powerful few get ahead and don’t see, hear or value everyday people. I realize that people on either edge of the political spectrum naturally take offense at being lumped in with the other lot. But everyone who still champions democratic capitalism—and that’s most of us—needs to realize that the calls for revolution from right and left have a common foundation in grievance and estrangement.
Their uproar was a long time coming. Many of today’s radicalized voters come from families who sacrificed when the country went to war over phantom weapons of mass destruction and watched the responsible policy makers get off scot-free. Their communities were decimated by the financial crisis, and banks got bailouts while victims were left holding the bag. Today they struggle to afford college even as celebrities lie and cheat to get their children into elite schools. Over the years they’ve grown to believe that there are two sets of rules in the U.S.—one for the rich and powerful, and one for everyone else. They’re not entirely wrong.
But the solution isn’t to blow up the system, ignoring the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box. Nor is it right for proponents of America’s institutions to castigate, shun, cancel or demonize those who have lost faith. Both camps have become ideologically tribal, and Mr. Trump was particularly adept at exploiting the desire to find fellowship in grievance. But the first step in reconciliation or bridging a political divide is to control any impulse to dismiss the other side, and instead reach for mutual understanding. That’s why Americans should adopt Mr. Biden’s belief that everyone counts, that everyone’s voice matters, and that our collective responsibility is to ensure that the country can “grow together.”
Mr. Biden was mocked during the campaign for his gauzy promises to reach across the aisle in an effort to “build back better.” But his message was designed specifically to help restore the faith of people who feel alienated by the status quo. That said, even if Mr. Biden’s success is an affirmation of the American promise, no president can single-handedly solve the problem of American alienation. Everyone has a role to play. So now is a moment to lean into the first Catholic president’s inaugural admonition. As
John F. Kennedy
said in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The U.S. should vastly expand opportunities for national service, which would help unite diverse communities in a common mission. We should invest in rural broadband, giving young people in small towns the same reliable connection to the wider world that their peers enjoy in New York or San Francisco. We should make big investments not only in traditional public schools and colleges, but also in certificate-granting programs that can quickly propel a person working for minimum wage into a secure job that pays a living wage. And we should do all of this not only because of the measurable economic payoffs, but also because these initiatives would send the implicit cultural message that America intends to give every citizen a place at the table of opportunity and prosperity.
We’ve spent too much time over the past five years talking, thinking and obsessing over Donald Trump. He’s a manifestation of the problem, not the problem itself. His emergence opened a window to the ugliness that lurks in various corners of American life. But as of this moment, our country is less likely to fall apart than the fight over the election results might have led you to believe. The upshot of this year’s campaign is that Americans are determined to weave the country back together. Leadership requires finding opportunities to do exactly that.
Mr. Biden’s victory initially seemed to be about getting rid of Mr. Trump—and at a basic level, it was. But the result was also an affirmation of the country’s capacity for renewal. We are a diverse nation, and our citizens remain riven by conflicting ideas and beliefs. But as President Clinton once said, and as is demonstrated by the ingenuity being shown by states, localities and places of worship in the absence of federal leadership: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Last month Americans demonstrated that their intention isn’t to abandon the democratic experiment, but to fix what’s broken in our dynamic and resilient society.
Mr. Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton and chief of staff to President
He represented Illinois’s Fifth Congressional District, 2003-09, and served as mayor of Chicago, 2011-19.
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