Over the past 50 years, there have been five close elections. George W. Bush beat Al Gore by five electoral votes, Bush beat Kerry by 35 votes, Carter Ford by 57, Trump Clinton by 77, and Biden Trump by 74 electoral votes. Triple digits separated winners and losers in the other presidential elections. Only Nixon and Reagan won in landslides.
Close elections reflect a closely divided nation. When President-Elect Biden said, “It’s time for America to unite” he’s asking for the impossible at least at this time. That said, the new president can build trust out of suspicion and achieve détente in division. He’ll need the help of Republicans and Democrats, voters and elected officials, to agree to disagree on policy without pursuing the politics of personal destruction.
In politics, Newton’s Third Law of Motion–every action has an equal and opposite reaction—can be translated as: They did it to us; we’re going to do it to them. Every nasty and unethical action by one group elicits another of equal force in the opposite direction. The only way to stop the cycle of retribution is for both sides to stopping acting egregiously.
We can start by accepting the election results. Biden won. Of the roughly 36 suits filed by President Trump’s legal team and allies, two dozen have been dismissed, denied, or withdrawn. The Dominion conspiracy theory has been debunked. Recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin turned up a few thousand uncounted ballots. While embarrassing, the addition of the uncounted votes is not sufficient to flip the final count. Trump should concede rather than drag out the inevitable as Gore did 20 years ago.
Trump supporters view delay as comeuppance and not without reason. While Hillary Clinton conceded, the results of the 2016 election were not universally accepted by the Left. Nearly 70 Democrats in the House boycotted the inauguration. Protesters marched, hashtag: #notmypresident and #StillWithHer. Trump supporters feel that the president’s opponents spent four years trying to abrogate the 2016 election results. To be fair, President Obama’s supporters view birtherism similarly–an attempt to delegitimize a duly elected president. In each case, the grievances are real but the aggrieved need to move on.
Biden will be the new president. We don’t have to accept his policy prescriptions; indeed we should fight most of them, but we must accept the results of the election. Thus far, the president-elect has been gracious. He told advisors he doesn’t want endless investigations of his predecessor. Good for him. If the goal is healing, don’t pick the scabs of controversy just to watch them bleed.
Biden can go a step further by acknowledging the closeness of the race and deep divisions in the county. He doesn’t have a mandate for sweeping action and should plot a moderate course. A federalist approach to regulation, for example, would enable diverse states to regulate matters in keeping with their population’s priorities and values. This would reduce conflict. A return to the heavy hand of the Obama era will all but guarantee a populist revival. Likewise, Biden must withstand pressure from the fringe of his party. Republicans and moderate Democrats are concerned about cancel culture, censorship, efforts to defund the police, and rioting and looting. Biden can oppose dangerous, illiberal cultural trends without throwing gasoline on the fire as Trump did with his own provocations.
Finally, the new president can encourage states to address voter concerns about elections. Mail-in voting is likely the future of elections but it shouldn’t take weeks to count the ballots. Processes need to be transparent, safeguarded, and timely. Mistakes and delays undermine confidence in elections and create fertile soil for distrust.
President-Elect Biden promised “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify” and vowed to “work with all my heart for the confidence of the whole people, to win the confidence of all people.” He rightly believes, “To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.” Biden might succeed in changing the tone of our disagreements but not without our help.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer
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