Last week, amid the ongoing counting of the votes for the presidential election, Joe Biden tweeted: “To make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies.” The response from many was harsh and swift, the sentiment of many captured in the following reply: “I love you, Joe, but you’re wrong. Every Trumpian deplorable is the enemy of democracy & decency, and they will never find comfort from me.” But Biden is right.
Biden’s tweet echoes a theme that will only become more prominent in political discourse over the coming weeks: A call for unity among a divided country. Put differently, this is a call for political reconciliation, a call to repair our damaged political relationships.
Worries about pursuing reconciliation or unity are often twofold: that it requires us to “shake hands with the devil,” and that unity requires us to silence our disagreements and therefore inhibits reform and change. To respond to these worries, we have to look more carefully at what kind of reconciliation or unity it is morally defensible to demand.
As I argue in my work, political reconciliation that is morally defensible may require us to shake hands with the devil. For many Biden supporters, the devil is every “Trumper,” or Trump voter, who comprise 70 million voters at the time of this writing. For many Trump supporters, the devil is “the left” or “libs” who support Biden, comprising 74 million voters.
In the United States, we have no choice but to figure out how to live together, and the sooner we collectively acknowledge this the better. The alternatives are simply morally unacceptable: expulsion of our enemies through ideological (as opposed to ethnic) cleansing, secession or the undermining our democratic institutions and processes by a refusal to recognize and engage those with whom we disagree as fellow citizens. In a democracy, all members have a say, not simply those whose voices you want to hear.
What is key is determining what it means to engage with integrity and on a morally defensible basis. Here it is central to understand how our relationships are damaged and what is needed for them to be repaired. In my work on political reconciliation, I identify three main areas of damage that processes of reconciliation aim to repair, all of which are present in the United States at this moment.
Rule of law. The first is an erosion of the rule of law, where the rule of law specifies a set of requirements legal rules must satisfy if they are to be able to govern conduct — and ensures declared legal rules actually govern the conduct of officials and citizens. Throughout the Trump presidency, concerns have been consistently voiced about the erosion of the rule of law. As the counting of ballots continues, Trump’s tweets erroneously “claim” certain states as his, cast doubts on the integrity of the electoral process and demand a stop to the vote. Reinforcing the rule-governed manner in which presidents are decided in the U.S., by both Republican and Democratic officials, is necessary to ensure that this election is decided in a manner that comports with our rules.
Trust. The second is grounds for an attitude of trust of fellow citizens and officials to be reasonable. Trust refers to a presumption of lack of ill will and competence in fulfilling role-related responsibilities as an official or citizen. Deep distrust across political divides characterizes political relationships in the present moment. While in some cases distrust is based on demonstrably false information or conspiracy theories, in other cases deep distrust is reasonable. The presumptive distrust among many Black men and women toward the police is a consequence of being disproportionately targeted by police violence and killing. Making trust reasonable requires determining methods for effectively countering disinformation promoted by conspiracies. It also requires the kind of institutional reform of police that would make a presumption of lack of ill will reasonable.
Equal standing. The third area of damage is what Biden emphasized in his tweet, conditions that undermine our ability to effectively participate in the economic and political life of our community. Being labeled an “enemy” in ways that challenge one’s standing as a member of the political community, being disrespected in ways that challenge one’s claim to certain legal rights and being unable to avoid poverty are key sources of damage. Repair in this area requires countering efforts at voter suppression that disproportionately target and affect citizens of color. It also requires collective efforts to redress the unemployment, hunger and poverty that were already present in the United States but have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
To tackle the real and deep damage to political relationships we face, we cannot dismiss tens of millions of our fellow citizens. You might say that I’m being ridiculous, that it’s simply impossible to engage those who hold insane views. And that it’s morally outrageous to suggest forgiveness of and unity with those who are evil and corrupt, snide and condescending, as well as outright racist and sexist. If my social media feed is any indication, these views are held, and held deeply, by Trump and Biden supporters alike.
A democratic society is predicated on the possibility of engagement. To believe it is impossible to engage with tens of millions of your fellow citizens is to give up on democracy. That said, democracy is also predicated on disagreement, and democracy is compatible with anger. The bar being advocated by Biden is extremely low: Do not view your fellow citizens as the enemy. Meeting that bar is compatible with deep anger, disagreement over policies and politics, and calling out racism and sexism when they are present.
Democracy does not require forgiveness when forgiveness is not merited, and can require accountability for wrongdoing. It can also demand preventing and stopping efforts to disrupt democratic processes. There is nothing Pollyannaish about the unity democracy needs.
The road to the rule of law, trust and genuine opportunities for participation and the avoidance of poverty is very long and very steep. It requires all of us to find a way to, collectively, work together.
Colleen Murphy is the Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.