Lincoln offered solace to his opponents but was steadfast in support of his own agenda. It’s a good model as Biden steps up to lead a divided nation.
It feels like deliverance, like relief, like we can all finally exhale. After stressful wait, and even as recounts may loom, President Donald Trump’s defeat means he can do no more damage to our faith in each other and to the world’s faith in us. His cruelty, lies and narcissism defiled these precious treasures that generations sacrificed to build. A new beginning under a Democratic administration that puts the ugly scars of the past four years behind us is possible. But what direction will it, and should it, take?
The Democrats need to examine how they could have lost in 2016 and merely eked out a narrow victory in 2020 to someone so lacking in presidential qualities, so lacking in character, that winning now feels more like a reprieve than a triumph. They need to engage in critical introspection to avoid future Trumps. The fire next time awaits if they don’t draw the right conclusions.
First, the election highlighted the Democrats’ continued problem with white working-class and rural voters. Biden was able to reduce the margin of defeat among these groups compared to 2016, but they were still an anchor of Trump support. These groups’ continued antagonism means they remain a potent threat that smarter, more adroit, less self-destructive Trumps could mobilize in future elections.
Trump exposed Democratic weakness
These voters continue to regard the Democratic Party as indifferent to their concerns, even as their communities are wracked with deaths of despair from suicide and opioid addiction, and as contemptuous of their values, even as Democrats claim to be the party of inclusion. To attract these voters, Democrats don’t need to sacrifice their principles, but they do need to stop contemptuously ignoring them and start signaling their lives matter.
Second, Trump’s policies were chaotic, dangerous and shortsighted. But he also exposed weaknesses in the policy consensus to which previous Republican and Democratic administrations subscribed. One of them was Trump’s skepticism of trade agreements that devastated working-class jobs, living standards and communities. The United States can’t afford to underwrite neoliberal, free trade policies that harm the manufacturing sector any longer. The Democrats need to unfriend Davos Man.
The other policy underbelly that Trump exposed was immigration. The public overwhelmingly approves of legal immigration (84% in 2018, according to Gallup) but has long been troubled by illegal immigration. Each year since 2010, half to two-thirds have said they worry about it a great deal or a fair amount. To want to return to higher pre-Trump rates of legal immigration and at the same time oppose illegal immigration is not unjust or anti-immigrant. The Democrats need to secure the borders because there is little appetite for open ones.
No hysterics, please: When your presidential candidate loses, here’s what to do
Finally, the nation is tired of its own discord. The country faced a similar time of weariness with its own divisions as the Civil War neared its conclusion after four grueling years of turmoil and bloodshed. President Abraham Lincoln spoke to this moment in his second inaugural address, whose words are inscribed today on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
Balance of resolve and empathy
His address came as the Union Army advanced on the battlefield and Republicans succeeded at the polls. Despite these victories, the tone of his speech was subdued and solemn, never triumphal or boastful. In it, Lincoln attempted to chart a path between welcoming the South back into the union — “with malice toward none; with charity for all,” he famously wrote — and remaining true to the principles of why he waged war against it in the first place, to defend the union and end slavery.
The Democrats would do well to follow the difficult path Lincoln laid out and avoid becoming either too dogmatic or too conciliatory. The former often presents itself as self-righteousness, the latter as a lack of self-confidence. Democrats need to be humble toward Trump voters, just as Lincoln offered solace to Confederates, and be self-assured in pursuing their agenda, just as Lincoln promised to follow through and end slavery. Democrats need to express empathy for those who voted against them and resolution in support of those who did.
Lincoln never could implement the dexterous strategy he laid out in his second inaugural address. He was killed just 42 days after he delivered it to the nation.
We’ll see whether President-elect Joe Biden can exhibit the statesmanship that an assassin’s bullet prevented Lincoln from displaying. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic Party convention, Biden said he would work “as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president.” Just this week, expressing confidence in the outcome as the count went on, he told the country: “There will be no blue states and red states when we win, just the United States of America.”
We’ll see how well Biden can square the circle: deliver to his voters at the same time he tries to heal our wearying and dysfunctional political divisions.
Alan Draper is the Michael W. Ranger and Virginia R. Ranger Professor of Government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/11/07/joe-biden-stay-true-his-goals-reach-out-trump-voters-column/6165150002/