American democracy narrowly missed a bullet, but remains in mortal danger from extreme divisiveness. There is rejoicing here and around the world that America is back, but we have gone very far astray, and it will be a long and difficult road back. Trump did not create this divisiveness — he only exploited and amplified it.
A Biden presidency will not soon end this “battle for the soul of America,” as the President-elect has called it. But he is clearly articulating the need to change our political discourse. This is not a matter of policy. It begins as a matter of tone, but goes far deeper (as the electorate and recent history are telling us).
Like many, I feared Trump would win, and at first was very disappointed that Biden would not have a unified government to move his agenda forward. But I came to see that confronting a clearly divided government is ultimately more likely to lead to a lasting recovery. Our problem is not just divided government, but our deeply divided society. Biden may be the last best hope we have to reverse that, before gridlock and counter-reaction take us back to some variant of Trumpism or another form of failed or semi-failed state.
We remain terribly polarized not only about policies, but about the very nature of government and citizenship. Most importantly we have forgotten how to respect the humanity of those who disagree with us, and to work with them. We have become a zero-sum society, not a win-win society. We have come to demonize those who disagree with us as evil and inhuman — bad people to be defeated, not fellow citizens to be understood and respected.
Biden’s acceptance speech powerfully reiterated the tone he campaigned on, and that is his mandate. Many have voiced agreement about the need to unite the country, and argued Biden has rare talent to bridge divides. But Biden and all of us will have go deep on this. We have often given lip-service to such ideals before.
A more or less divided government will stymie the hopes of some to swing far to the left without acceptance from the right. That might have brought short-term gratification of many valid desires for change, but in the long run it would likely feed more polarization and a resurrection of some new version of Trumpism — one further swing of the pendulum that could take us over the edge we have veered back from. Biden won because he understood the need to campaign not for policies, but for values — not just as a feel-good slogan, but as the heart of his mission. I hope he can sustain that and deliver on it.
Biden quoted Ecclesiastes, but sharper wisdom comes from farther east. When Biden was beleaguered by Trump’s bluster during the first debate, he shone through by turning to the camera and speaking directly to the American people.
It reminded me of the Buddha’s iconic “touch ground” gesture. While he was seeking enlightenment under the bodhi tree, an army of demonic forces massed and threatened to unseat him, demanding proof of his righteousness. He simply touched the ground, calling on the Spirit of the Earth to bear witness— at which the demonic legions dissolved. In the same way, Biden should shrug off the distractions of divisiveness by simply, maybe repeatedly, turning to the American people — calling on them to bear witness to his righteous dedication to American values.
The Tao, which emerged from another Eastern tradition, expresses the wisdom Biden must instill in all of us. We get lost in the illusions of binary opposites and tribal identities: love versus strife, male versus female, black versus white, liberal versus conservative, rural versus urban, elites versus disadvantaged, and so on. But the Tao teaches that reality is not binary, and each attribute contains some of its opposite. That is the symbol of the intertwined Tao (especially the version with the opposing dots in the centers of the yin and yang).
Biden has many urgent policy challenges – the pandemic, the economy, climate change, racial injustice, the local costs of globalism, infrastructure, technology, media, and many more. But he will be unable to make a lasting dent in them without teaching us to turn back from binary dualism to something like the richer unity of the Tao, regardless of whether he calls it that.
He is the man for our time. He knows and can teach us how to shift from zero-sum thinking to win-win thinking. Instead of redistribution of wealth, reparations, and walls that simply separate and take from one to give to another, we need to refocus on how to grow wealth for all and correct injustice in ways that all can see as fair and humane.
If liberals fight for a Green New Deal in ways that do not bring conservatives on board, we will just sow the seeds for more Trumpism. If the educated privileged elites fight the “deplorables” with overwrought political correctness, they will just be stymied by more-entrenched resistance.
Some view Biden as a man of the past, not the future, but he advocates timeless American values. A future that does not bring the other side with us will just raise their resolve to demonize and defeat us. Even if the other side continues to lose their majority, we will inherit more strife than love. The culture wars must refocus as efforts at unification, conversion, or coexistence.
The American dream is based not on tyranny of any majority, but on win-win value propositions that unify us. Biden must remind us it is not just expediency, but simple decency to hear and understand the humanity of the other side and their needs. I expect he will.
Sociobiology teaches us that humans have been bred to create value and flourish by cooperating. The essence of human cooperation is seeing that long-term benefits outweigh short-term advantage. Biden must bring us back to this kind of focus on long-term common good.
He will face strong opposition in Congress and throughout our divided society. His campaign town halls have been powerful and could continue, much the way Roosevelt used radio “Fireside Chats” to get bottom-up support for radical change. I hope we will see that. We have urgent problems of policy, but cannot solve them in a divided society focused only on short-term, narrow interests.
Trump traded on an outrageously negative populism of division. Biden can use his common-man touch to create an enlightened populism of unity. Mitch McConnell and other Republicans will dig in and call on their base. The strident far-left will agitate and call on their base. Biden must call on all of America (and the world) to see the deeper needs the partisans are fighting for, and how we can reconcile them to move forward together – as fast as possible, but no faster.
Richard Reisman’s book, FairPay: Adaptively Win-Win Customer Relationships, and blog, FairPayZone.com, introduce a new customer-value-first revenue strategy for digital commerce. He is President and founder of Teleshuttle Corporation, and has managed and consulted for businesses of all sizes, developed pioneering online services, and holds over 50 patents licensed by over 200 companies.