January 25, 2022
In January 2021, the newly elected President of the United States, Joe Biden, is sworn in. On the campaign trail, he advocated for unity to restore an angry and divided America to its former unity.
One year on, how much has Biden achieved? In the face of Russia’s buildup of military forces on the Ukrainian border and China’s show of force determination in the Taiwan Strait, can Biden allow the United States to put aside differences and unite patriotically?
Nick Bryant, who once served as the BBC’s North American correspondent, believes that Biden’s desire to unite the United States is still far away, and that the year in office is not satisfactory in all aspects.
On the day Biden was sworn in as president, before the sun rose over the dome of the U.S. Capitol, technicians on the inauguration platform were testing the teleprompter for his inaugural speech, and the screen was scrolling with the words of former U.S. President Lincoln. The famous Gettysburg Address.
“Eighty-seven years ago, our fathers built a new nation on this continent, conceived in liberty and committed to the claim that all men are created equal. Now we are in the midst of a great civil war, testing Whether this country, or any country conceived in liberty and by the principle that all men are created equal, can endure in the long run.”
When I first saw these Gettysburg Addresses on the screens in front of the President’s podium, I thought the joke was too cruel: Lincoln’s words are still relevant despite the passage of time. After all, Washington, D.C. looked like a military barracks that morning.
Soldiers in the Armed Forces slept overnight in the corridors of Congress to protect Congress from rioters, just as their ancestors did in the Lincoln era. The scaffolding on the inauguration platform was also used as a staging ground during the riots on January 6 two weeks ago. When Americans fought each other again, the Civil War Confederate flag was even held high in the halls of Congress, a symbol of American power.
So, as Biden, the 46th president of the United States, prepares to take office, the question posed by the 16th President Lincoln seems particularly relevant: Can this country survive?
American political issues
Unlike the clichés of the nation’s renaissance centerpieces in past presidential inauguration speeches, Biden’s January 2021 inauguration focused on reuniting the country. The phrase “democracy triumphed” in his speech was quickly written into the history books, but he had three sentences that nicely summed up the mission he hopes to accomplish during his presidency: unite America, unite people, unite nation.
A year later, however, the call for national unity still sounds like a dream. Instead of being united, America is more dangerously divided. People often feel that the only thing that binds the country together is hating each other. America seems to be at a perpetual war with itself.
In the past 12 months, tensions have permeated beyond those longstanding points of disagreement like abortion rights. The United States has found new topics of debate, and mandatory vaccination is one of them. America has also discovered new ways to fight old wars. The Clash of Critical Race Theory (CRT), the latest front in the war between left and right in American culture, is a new way of continuing to debate the centuries-old legacy of slavery and segregation.
The past year has not been without moments that might help bridge the divide. The conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, for example, was eventually overtaken by events that exacerbated divisions. The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who shot and killed two men during a race riot in Kenosha, Wis., was acquitted of such divisions.
For those who think he should be convicted, Ritthouse is a pretentious murderer who recklessly storms racial protests with a semi-automatic weapon. To his supporters, he is a patriot, an American hero, and even a far-right website labeled him a “saint.”
The teenager became the latest archetype of polarization. Opinion degenerated into an angry din around his trial, involving gun control, self-defense laws, double standards in the police and the criminal justice system, and more, with views entangled with one another. It is the norm in American society today that policy discussions around complex and delicate issues are always intensified like in a flash, using either-or and the most emotional terms.
American Democracy Dilemma
If an earthquake’s Richter scale were to be used to measure the degree of division in American society, Riethouse’s trial was a moderate earthquake. The aftershocks of the Jan. 6 shock to the U.S. Congress are still far more severe. Far from being a Trump-denying moment, the congressional riots ultimately had a catalyzing effect on the conservative movement.
The so-called “big lie” that Trump won the election, which was only a sloppy conspiracy theory in the hours after Biden was declared victory, has since become mainstream within the Republican Party.
What we have before us is something that has never been seen in modern America: a former president who refused to accept a clear presidential election result and still continues to enjoy broad support from his party. Defenders of the Congressional riots even argue that the riots on the night of January 6 were not an attack on democracy, nor did democracy end that night.
Over the past year, legislatures in more than a dozen Republican-controlled states have passed voting-limiting laws and enacted laws that make it easier for Republicans to interfere in election management in partisan ways, a move that Democrats have made The allegations are part of a slow coup for Republicans to retake the White House in the next presidential election. Yet polls show that more Republicans than Democrats think democracy is under attack. This is another measure of disunity.
Free and fair elections, the mechanism for the peaceful resolution of civil society disputes, are now themselves at the very center of disputes and divide societies. And at the heart of this debate concerns something more fundamental, which is that there is no agreement on the undisputed factual level of Biden’s objective victory.
In a country plagued by misinformation and conspiracy theories, how can there be unity when people can’t agree on how they feel about reality? Know that truth is often a prerequisite for reconciliation.
Some fear that the Jan. 6 riots in Congress are a prelude to a political earthquake that will be followed by an even more devastating outburst.
This explains the recent focus on a series of books worrying about further conflict and political unrest in the United States. In How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, political science professor Barbara F Walter describes the United States as a “virtual democracy” ( anocracy, a mix of democracy and authoritarianism, has warned of further intensification of militia violence.
In his book Divided We Fall, Iraq War veteran David French even worries that states may decide to secede from the Union.
This was the trigger for the American Civil War in the mid-19th century. Books about America’s decline have flooded since the turn of the century, and now they’ve formed a new genre—one that specializes in the prospect of America’s disintegration.
Few American scholars believe that the country is on the brink of a full-blown second civil war, nor that fellow citizens will take up arms against each other on the battlefield, much less a modern version of Fort Sumter and Antioch. Battle of Mu.
But given the rise in militias and the incendiary tone of the political discourse, a scenario similar to the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is more likely. Sporadic political violence. Yet even that possibility is shocking.
America and the World Order
Late in the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden actually went to Gettysburg, warning of potential violence for division. “Our nation is in a perilous situation,” he said on the historic battlefield that has seen tens of thousands of American casualties. Once again, we are a divided nation.” However, the self-proclaimed consensus-builder, A president with a spirit of bipartisanship in his bones has not even been able to unite his party, let alone the country.
Biden is well aware that more battles are looming on the not-too-distant horizon.
Sometime in 2022, the Supreme Court will issue a much-anticipated ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could overturn the constitutional right to abortion, leading to the U.S. more divided.
Congressional midterm elections are another potential flashpoint.
Even with the possibility of a conflict with Russia over Ukraine or China over Taiwan, it is hard to imagine a patriotic upsurge in the United States that would bring the country together. Instead, armed conflict, like the coronavirus pandemic and the Jan. 6 riots, is more likely to expose America’s rifts.
At the inauguration a year ago, you could almost hear the relief in Biden’s voice when he assured America and the world that democracy had won. But in his two New Year’s speeches, on Jan. 6, the first anniversary of the riots in Congress, and in Georgia calling for voting-rights legislation, there was a taste of abandonment and strong partisan overtones.
Both are likely to show that he knows from the bottom of his heart that his plan of solidarity has failed and that he cannot heal the nation’s torn wounds. One day, historians may see this as his personal failure. But I think many people should have more sympathy for him. After all, what president can restore this shattered land that seems increasingly ungovernable?
The United States will celebrate its 250th anniversary on July 4, 2026. As this big day approaches, the best we can hope for is that the United States can basically maintain a state of peaceful coexistence, and the civil cold war will never turn into a hot war.
As for whether this country will survive for a long time? This is still an unanswered question.
（Note: Nick Bryant was a former BBC correspondent in the US and Australia and the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.）