The Biden-Harris Era
November 11, 2020
“Strangers stopping strangers, just to shake their hands.”
It’s a line from the Grateful Dead’s ‘Scarlet Begonias’, a Whitmanesque celebration of life, love and the democratic spirit. Pandemic-appropriate versions of that were breaking out in cities all over the world on Saturday. Cars honking, dance lines with masked revelers, air fives, celebratory sign waving. There was a joyous drum circle in a park near my house complete with capoeira dancers and democracy lovers. All of it, plus the 75 degree weather, made it feel as if, in the words of our new President-elect, both God and history had ordained this moment.
Donald Trump has been compared to a schoolyard bully. Let me tell you, from deep personal experience, how the worst schoolyard bullies operate. They roam the playground looking for the most vulnerable kids, and then they exercise a kind of sorcery that hypnotizes a sizeable group of other people to form a swarm of meanness and smother the victim. So many who wound up in that swarm were just minding their own business. Some had their own vulnerabilities that they were doing their best to hide. In other circumstances, and with different forces at play, there might have been a solidarity across an array of vulnerabilities on that playground. Perhaps that solidarity might have even taken on the bully.
Not with Donald Trump astride the yard and directing the charge. He is a master at identifying your vulnerability and using it against you. He is a master at bringing out the worst in people. He thrills at transforming everyday people into swarms of meanness.
And I guess that’s what excites me so much about the Biden-Harris moment. They offer literally the opposite of Trump’s meanness and divisiveness. There is no ‘Us vs Them’ in their language, there is only ‘Us’. There is no talk of revenge, only talk of unifying. They have a bone-deep sense of the most important work ahead: to lift up marginalized voices, and bridge widening divides.
So many of us had hoped for a total repudiation – the moral victory that Van Jones so famously talked about on CNN. We didn’t get that. But we did get something else: evidence that America’s civic energy and democratic systems were strong. I refer to a record voter turnout combined with just how well our electoral apparatus – from polling places to mail delivery to vote counting – held up. Cable news networks gave us video footage of vote counters doing their work meticulously and fairly, hour after hour, around the clock, sometimes with angry mobs standing just outside and inquisitive journalists poking around. Government officials of literally all backgrounds updated the public through live press conferences and interviews. The vote counting proceeded. When the winner was clear, the military protocol went into effect and the new President-elect and Vice President-elect received the appropriate protection. Even during this transitional time, as Donald Trump lifts up false claims of fraud, the system demands evidence; and evidence simply doesn’t exist. The system is working.
While we must always be vigilant, we are fortunate in the United States to live in a nation where many things work. In most places, you can breathe the air and drink the tap water. And when things don’t work – say, drinking water in Flint, our public health system in this time of plague, or policing in too many minority neighborhoods – there is righteous, and rightful, outrage.
But outrage on its own doesn’t improve anything. Screaming at a system can bring attention to a problem, but people who take responsibility, and take charge, are the ones who ultimately make the improvements. Now is the time when we must all take charge and take responsibility to build the improvements that our country needs.
Bill Clinton used to say that there was nothing wrong with America that couldn’t be fixed with what was right with America. Barack Obama’s entire political journey was defined by three words: Yes, we can.
That’s the spirit we are going to need to move our nation forward in this time. In the Trump era, working to improve the system so that it served more people better was like flying a plane in a tornado. The Biden-Harris era promises a different weather pattern. But we still need pilots committed to flying the plane, as well as engineers who will build a better plane that is designed and equipped to carry all its passengers to safely.
In my mind, Stacey Abrams put it best in her interview on CNN’s State of the Nation on Sunday November 8: her heroic voter registration efforts in Georgia, and Kamala Harris’s win as VP-elect, showed that marginalized minorities don’t just have to be advocates and activists, they can be in charge of running systems, and making them better. Now is the time, as the Biden campaign has put it, to build back better. Let’s get to work.
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