American Polarization: To Build the Future, Look to the Past, not the Present

By Wylie Brunman

London, United Kingdom

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at his inauguration in January. (Andrew Harnik / AFP / Getty Images)

One year ago, President Biden stood at the Western Front of the Capitol, put his hand on the Bible and uttered the following words: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: so help me God.” In doing so, he reflected upon tradition built by men as great as Washington and Lincoln, as flawed as Jackson and Nixon, as neoteric as Roosevelt and Reagan.


He pledged to “fight for those who did not support me as for those who did,” to ensure that “disagreement must not lead to disunion,” just 2 weeks after the violent insurrection at the Capitol kindled by his predecessor. He promised to be a President for all, no matter belief, inhibition or conviction. In doing so, he eased the tensions of a nation battered and bruised but not broken, and set about a vision of a nation unified and civil once-more: a vision of a better tomorrow.


Earlier this month in Georgia, President Biden posed a clear and definitive question: “Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Speaking on voting rights, President Biden equated those in opposition to Democrat-lead voting rights bills to the leader of the Confederacy, bringing from the shadows a dark stain on this country’s history to represent half of the Senate and a large proportion of the American people. Far from the emphasis on togetherness, it was a comment propagating the division and disunity which President Biden swore to repel. It was a pronouncement of a tone perhaps expected of the previous president, but not of one who had promised not one year before to remedy the rhetoric of the Office of the President.


Shortly after the conclusion of the President’s Georgia speech came the release of a Quinnipiac poll. The poll found that 49% of Americans say Biden is doing more to divide than unite the nation—a plurality—whilst 42% think he is doing more to unite the country. This sentiment is understandable. With the exception of the Infrastructure Law last year, the Biden Administration’s biggest policies have all been supported among party lines or less. Republicans and conservative Democrats such as Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have been pressured, abased and demonized rather than enticed and persuaded as the Biden Administration seeks to curry support for its proposals. Such behavior entrenches itself in the hearts and minds of those across the country; they feel ridiculed rather than respected, and in their search for defense, turn to news sources untrustworthy in their own right.


When Biden delivered his solemn oath last year, he was reading a passage enshrined within our Constitution: Article 2, Clause 8. It was a component of a constitution written by great yet flawed men, who recognised the imperfection of man and sought to establish a document to protect the burgeoning union from the excesses of their contemporaries. They set out to devise a constitution to protect the minority from ‘the tyranny of the majority’. They endeavored to form a charter which out of a newly formed nation strove to create a republic: not a strict democracy. The beauty of our Union lies both within the people and their natures: to converse, debate and protest but also to embrace one another as friends. “All great change begins at the dinner table,” as Ronald Reagan said, famously known for his own ‘after 6 o’clock’ friendship with Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.


166 years before President Biden pledged unity, and 167 years before he reneged, a towering yet humble man stood in the same place President Biden did. He condemned the fighting of the four years prior, and the ‘insurgents’ who caused it. Yet Abraham Lincoln ended with a message of reconciliation: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Let us hope that the journalists we listen to, the representatives who stand for us, but above all the President of our great nation heed this message, and strive forward to create a more perfect union.