David Brooks: Joe Biden and the case for optimism

The new president can move us away from our homegrown feudalism.

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Joe Biden visits the Lincoln Memorial on Inauguration Day in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Every president sets the moral and cultural tone for the nation. We saw that in a terrible way over the past four years. Just by who he is, Biden sets the stage for a moral revival, David Brooks writes.

Most calls to “national unity” are vacuous pap. They are unrealistic, kumbaya pleas to “come together” around nothing.

But, as Richard Hughes Gibson wrote this week in The Hedgehog Review, the best calls to national unity are arguments. They are aggressive calls to come together around a specific idea of America, a specific national project.

What idea of America does Joe Biden call us to unite around? It’s the old one. As Walt Whitman understood, America was founded mostly by people fleeing the remnants of feudalism, the stratified caste societies of Europe.

Today we have homegrown feudalism. On the right, we have white supremacy, an effort to perpetuate America’s racial caste system, and Christian nationalism, an effort to define America in a way that erases the pluralism that actually exists.

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1% of earners than from the bottom 60%. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

Enter Joe Biden, a man who is repelled by the ancient feudalism of the right and is outside the “meritocratic” feudalism of the left. Here is a Truman-like figure, whose inaugural address was spoken in the plain words and with the plain values of Main Street.

My favorite passage was this: “Here is the thing about life: There is no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days you need a hand; there are other days when we are called to lend a hand.” The Biden values are there: humility, vulnerability, compassion, resilience, interdependence, solidarity. Donald Trump’s patriotism was bloated and fear-based. Biden’s is the self-confident patriotism he absorbed by growing up in a certain sort of country during the American century.

Every president sets the moral and cultural tone for the nation. We saw that in a terrible way over the past four years. Just by who he is, Biden sets the stage for a moral revival. His values cut across the left/right, urban/rural culture war we’ve been enduring for a generation.

This will begin to heal a broken and ungovernable nation. Next, Biden will work to depoliticize American life. Over the last years, politics was about everything except actual governance. Under Trump, partisanship was about personal identity, class resentment, religious affiliation, racial prejudice and cultural animosity.

Biden is a genius at separating politics from the culture wars. He’s been a genius at sidestepping the Trump circus, including the hullabaloo it arouses on the left. We have endured an age of affective polarization, when we didn’t disagree more, we just hated each other more. Under Biden, the emotional temperature will go down. People believe lies because of motivated reasoning. Under Biden the motivation will go down. Frankly, we need more political apathy in this country.

Biden has the right agenda, the redistribution of dignity. A politician can tell the people who have been left behind that he hears them, and that’s words. But Biden wants to present them with a $1,400 check they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, increase the child tax credit to $3,000 and create infrastructure jobs. That’s material proof that somebody in Washington understands what you are going through and is doing something real.

Will he be able to pass this sort of sweeping legislation? I have far from given up hope. Every day, I read that Republicans will never go for these spending plans, and I always want to ask the writer: Have you noticed that Republicans have already voted for roughly $3 trillion in new spending over the last 10 months? Do not underestimate how divided and confused their party is right now. Do not underestimate how much Republicans trust Biden personally.

Do not underestimate how many congressional Republicans would like to send checks to their people. Recently, I was on a call with the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus and a similar group of senators. I was struck by how passionately these Republicans and Democrats are committed to one another across party lines, how deftly they used the evenly divided Congress to restart the COVID-19 relief effort in December, how fervently they want to break the partisan logjam.

If this doesn’t work and Republicans go into full obstruction mode, Democrats should absolutely kill the filibuster.

The salient divisions in the Biden era won’t just be left versus right. They will be between the performers, the people who run for office to get on TV, and the builders, the people who want to achieve something. They will be between the fantasists, the people who lie and fabricate, and the realists, the people who are attached to reality. They will be between the narcissists (Ted Cruz) and the institutionalists (Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell).

I was shocked by how moved I was by the Biden inaugural. We’ve been through an emotional hailstorm over four years. Suddenly the sky has cleared. It’s possible America may emerge from this trauma more transformed than we can imagine.

David Brooks | The New York Times (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.