The president said something stunning last night during an address that marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the covid pandemic. If the press corps had been truly paying attention, it would have been headline news. What Joe Biden said reflects the sea change I’ve been talking about here in the Editorial Board, a fundamental shift in thinking about pretty much everything. “We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital,” he said. “No, it’s us. All of us. We, the people.”
I might be wrong, but I don’t recall any president talking like this in my lifetime. Not even Barack Obama. While the former president certainly spoke of the importance of duty and community, it was always placed in an acceptable framework, one assuring white voters that the first Black president represented consonance with a conservative view of government, rather than dissonance. The current president is not making any such attempts at assurance. This is something new, something wholly extraordinary.
The Washington press corps continues to define “bipartisanship” according to the old assumptions. The president, however, appears to feel the ground shifting.
Think about it. Without those assurances, all the assumptions of the past must be rethought. The biggest assumption, the one that was so widely understood as to be “natural,” was this: the government is not a public good. Ergo, the political solution to most, if not all, political problems was minimizing its role in the lives of individuals. Key to this assumption was the raw conviction that the government and the citizenry are two separate and unequal things—the diametric opposite of what the president said.
This presumed separation between the government and the citizenry is important to keep in mind, because without it, it’s impossible to understand conservative attitudes toward taxation, an attitude that has dominated policy discourse over the last four decades. Because of this presumed separation between the government and the citizenry, conservatives starting with President Ronald Reagan could characterize taxation as a form of “government tyranny,” as something done to citizens, instead of something done by them—instead of something citizens should take responsibility for. Of the many sources of “political polarization” we experience today, I’d say this one, the unequal separation between the government and the citizenry, is its main source.
Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!
But what is the source of that? The answer, I think, can be found in the reaction to Harry Truman’s civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, during which Jim Crow states walked out and later rallied around the presidential “Dixiecrat” candidacy of South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, who said:
This is another effort on the part of this president to dominate the country by force and put into effect these uncalled for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights, and I tell you the American people from one side to the other had better wake up and oppose such a program and if they don’t the next thing will be a totalitarian state in these United States.
Thurmond is a footnote to political history, but he articulated a key feature to periods in our history of white-power backlash against the slow liberalization of the republic, a feature that was never discussed while conservatives dominated political discourse. That feature was this: white supremacy demands what monarchy demands, the right to hereditary rule. The legitimacy of that demand depended to a great degree on the willingness of the American people—and the opposing party—to see the government as separate from the citizenry, a predicate reaching its zenith in the era of Donald Trump. Polarization wasn’t a byproduct of Trump’s partisanship. It was the point.
The press corps continues to define “bipartisanship” according to the old assumptions. The president, meanwhile, appears to feel the ground shifting. Three-fourths of Americans favor the passing of the American Rescue Act, even though it literally turns the government into a clearinghouse for pushing wealth downward to the bottom half of society. Additionally, 44 percent of GOP voters approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, as do a sizable number of Republican governors and mayors. In the past, bipartisanship meant the Democrats working with the Republicans. Now, it means the Republicans working with the Democrats, only the Republicans in the United States Congress are choosing not to, as if they believe the old assumptions are still in play.
More than half a million Americans are dead from the covid, more than all the men and women who died fighting in all foreign wars combined. That’s not just a tragedy. That’s a preventable tragedy that was impossible to prevent as a result of the prevailing belief over 40 years that the government and the citizenry are two separate and unequal things. Biden is not only mounting a public-health campaign. He’s mounting an ideological campaign to crush the old conservative assumptions that came close to crowning a king. In order to get everyone working together, he must bridge the divide between the government and the citizenry. He must convince us they are not separate and unequal but one and the same. He must remind us that the people are the republic.
National unity isn’t just how politicians vote in Washington. What the loudest voices say on cable or online. Unity is what we do together as fellow Americans.