It’s easy to look at present-day issues that trouble us and think like they’re the worst they’ve ever been, this tends to happen when we lack historical context. A one-term President who was voted out feels like a dictator, to others racism seems like it’s worse than 50 years ago, and a privately-owned, financially-thriving news outlet believes it barely survived after some of its most successful years. We’re all guilty of catastrophizing modern problems at some point or another, but this bleak, extremely-polarized outlook seems stronger today than ever in recent memory. What’s worse is that it seems like we’re all doing it.
There’s a flip side of course. With President Joe Biden’s inauguration, traditionally left-leaning media outlets have decided to go home and cover the news in four years when the next election comes up. A CNN political analyst fell into straight adoration of the new administration when he spoke of the Washington, DC COVID memorial’s lights reflecting to look like Biden’s arms embracing the nation, a comment which Glenn Greenwald rightly compared to something straight out of North Korean state television. The flip side being that to the people who see things as apocalyptic, they also paradoxically seem to believe that we’re finally on the right track to solve every problem, with a new president, a new House, and a new Senate.
Everyone will most likely get carried away by one of the recent currents. Either thinking that Biden’s election and inauguration is the end of the world or believing that Biden’s uniquely suited to bringing about wide-sweeping change that will right every wrong. But if we take a step back for a moment, it’s pretty clear that this sort of doomsday/messianic thinking isn’t very rooted in reality. So it’s worth asking, in the current toxic discourse, what are some of the big issues Biden will have to face? How will he deal with them? And what will #Unity look like?
“Unity” is the buzzword of the year on the Democratic side of the aisle, well, that and “empathy”. But in all honesty, unity is definitely something we’re in dire need of right now. The big problem is that no one seems rather committed to the idea if they have to sacrifice anything to attain it. Ever since winning the elections, the Democratic Party establishment and its elites had an amazing chance to bring the country together, instead, they’ve made every choice they could’ve made to ensure that Republicans feel like their worst worries and wildest conspiracy theories were actually right.
In an insane way to kick off the year, Google, Apple and Amazon all united in the destruction of Parler, a social media alternative to Twitter that tended to host a lot of people with political opinions that wouldn’t sit well with Jack Dorsey’s ethics committee. For years people have been worried about the massive power that these tech giants wield, now, they crushed an app that had become the most downloaded app on Google’s store just days before its death. Parler’s annihilation in just a day should worry anyone who believes in free markets or freedom in general, regardless of how one could feel about the app’s users and their politics. If you want to find distasteful individuals just go on Twitter or Facebook, it won’t take long to find accounts dedicated to glorifying self-harm.
But this show of force by Silicon Valley, an attempt to appease the incoming government, was just one of the actions taken recently that tried to find justification in the January 6th Capitol Riot. Anand Giridharadas, a contributor for MSNBC and Time, took a minute on January 22nd to call for the outlawing of Fox News for spreading “falsehoods”. It doesn’t matter what you think of Fox News, to call on the government to restrict speech you don’t like is authoritarian in nature and can only end up backfiring, a member of the media should know that. A writer called Don Winslow made and shared a video that’s been seen by over 4 million people where he basically says that our enemies are everywhere, hidden in every corner, they could even be our teachers or cops! Winslow then goes on to propose we should spy on our neighbors and denounce them to the authorities as terrorists for thinking or saying the wrong things.
Beyond people like Giridharadas and Winslow taking an opportunity to lay bare their inner totalitarianism, others have gone on to suggest we take action against Capitol Rioters, which I agree with, but how far should we go?
A few outlets online have published opinion pieces or articles about the Capitol Riots and the threat of domestic terrorism (like Winslow), but one of Biden’s greatest tests will come not from those seeking to restore Trump to the Presidency, but from the people who are trying to take advantage of this moment to expand the power of the state.
Moments of crisis always serve as fantastic opportunities to grant dangerous powers to a few individuals, just look at what happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at home with the expansion of the security state that Edward Snowden risked his freedom to expose. Any move to grow the government’s power to spy on and detain citizens should be looked at under the greatest of magnifying glasses with the utmost care, especially when words as political as terrorism are used.
“Terrorism” is an inherently loose term, after all, there’s a reason that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is such a popular phrase of wisdom. In fact, the United Nations doesn’t have a universally-accepted definition of terrorism, in part due to the risk of politicizing the term to mean people the government doesn’t like. Back in May of 2020, Donald Trump’s move to label ANTIFA as a domestic terrorist organization was met with backlash and suspicion, such should be the reaction now, especially in light of Representatives Brad Schneider, Jerry Nadler and others moving to pass a new Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act.
If someone tells you that the only way to protect our freedom is to expand the state’s power to spy on its citizens based on political ideology then that person has no interest in protecting our freedom. What’s worse is that those pushing for authoritarianism aren’t motivated by the desire of financial gain. They can’t be satisfied because they don’t see themselves as oppressors, but rather as liberators who have come to protect us from ourselves by dictating what opinions can be voiced, who you can vote for, and how you can act.
The tough road ahead
Joe Biden has the same task Donald Trump had back in January of 2017, to heal a divided nation. Trump was incapable of doing that, and only ended up heavily contributing to the vitriol. To be honest, I don’t think Biden has it in him either. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wish him well, if healing the nation is truly his intention. We should be mad at the political duopoly that holds the reins of the nation’s future in its hands for giving us such terrible choices this election cycle.
The President will face pressure from all sides, from his own cabinet that literally embodies the legal corruption of the revolving-door, to the extremists who think ever supporting Trump should be a crime, to those who think Biden stole the election and will lead the nation down the road to communism. It can look like we’re all just surrounded by extremes, but if we look carefully there is a center. Not a political center, but rather people looking to put aside differences and try to right the current state of American politics which has us down a spiraling road of catastrophizing. If people as politically diverse as Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Rashida Tlaib, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, Justin Amash and Bernie Sanders can all find agreement on critical issues, then surely the rest of us can too.
That process of finding agreement, of coming together in true unity, can’t be left up to Biden alone, nor can we hand that task to any politicians, commentators, journalists or celebrities. We must all make efforts and sacrifices. We must make the effort to hear people out, rather than immediately judging them to be the worst extreme we can think of. Only open minds and hearts will lead us to a better place.
Democracy is a slow slog, there are no overnight solutions, I hope Joe Biden can see that and resist the urge to ostracize those who think differently and appease the loudest among the crowd. I admit I don’t have much faith, but I do wish I’m wrong on that, we could all sure use some responsible people in power right now.