Today is only the fourth day of Joe Biden’s presidency, and whether you support him or not you have to acknowledge things already feel different. Yes the new president is on Twitter—and for now at least, his Tweets are getting way more likes than his predecessor’s—but Biden’s missives are more of the uplifting variety, rather than, well let’s just say all over the place.
The new administration is holding daily press briefings and more significantly, issued a passel of executive orders reversing positions on climate change, immigration and a big oil pipeline to name just a few.
At his inauguration—defined not only by COVID-19 but also fear of violence on the same hallowed ground where two weeks earlier a mob of criminals stormed our Capitol—Biden acknowledged the gravity of the moment. More than 400,000 Americans dead from the pandemic and a nation deeply divided. It’s almost certain that President Biden will be judged by how he addresses these crises. Ending the pandemic, if you can imagine, will be the easier of the two. Bringing America together will be his ultimate, herculean test.
Ah yes, Biden’s unity thing.
I know much has been made about this over the past few days, but I think it’s worth digging into more simply because it’s so critical. Or rather that the patient, America, is in critical condition—at least on this count.
Some historical perspective: Our nation is obviously more divided than it has been since at least the 1960s, (I’m old enough to remember), maybe more. On a scale from 1-10, where 10 was most divided as in the Civil War, (I’m not old enough to remember), and one was the day after 9/11 (least divided), I would give us an eight right now. And the trend isn’t good either as we are more split today than we were four years ago.
In his speech which was essentially a call for America to come together, Biden spoke directly to this point: “To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”
In fact he said that word, “unity,” eight times, (once consecutively for emphasis.) After that he must have turned to the presidential thesaurus as he said “union” three times and “together” seven times (another pair consecutively for emphasis.) Plus, he gave us three “hopes,” and five “loves.”
Contrast that to four years ago when Biden’s predecessor spoke of “American carnage” with “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones,” “the very sad depletion of our military,” and “students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs.” In that speech the former president uttered one “unity,” zero “unions,” two “togethers,” one “hope” and one “love.” Like they told you in kindergarten, words matter. (Ironically too, the American carnage speech was made when things were in relatively good shape, certainly compared to now when Biden gave his optimistic message.)
On the other hand, Biden’s words are only that for now. The new president has to walk the talk. Practically speaking I think there are three broad fronts to work on when it comes to unifying our country: Republicans in Congress, the misinformation machines in Silicon Valley and traditional media and Republican voters. (I should point out that my colleague Rick Newman argues that Biden should just do his own thing and not worry about unity when it comes to die-hard supporters of the last president. I get his point, but disagree as you will see below.)
So let’s take each of those three fronts, going from “easiest to hardest,” but really of course none are easy.
First Republicans in Congress. Biden has a tough job here, but he also has some advantages. “Joe Biden is an affable individual who has long relationships with many members of Congress,” former Commerce Secretary and Biden confidant Penny Pritzker told me. “And I think he will work with those folks from both sides of the aisle to the benefit of the American public.”
He certainly will try.
Probably no president in history has as much Congressional experience (36 years) as Joe Biden. (Compare that to his predecessor: 0, Obama: less than four years, Bush: 0, Clinton: 0, etc.) And as Pritzker says, not only is Biden intimately familiar with the levers of government, but he knows the personalities, i.e. minority leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.
I’m not saying it's going to be all wine and roses between Biden and McConnell, and we certainly won’t see a bipartisan bromance along the lines of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan or George Mitchell and Bob Dole (the latter had dinner together once a week), but Biden is not going to surprise McConnell, whom he needs to further his agenda, which by the way isn’t coming from the AOC-Bernie-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party (a big plus when dealing with the GOP.)
Another advantage Biden has is that the GOP has been cleaved. The majority is aligned with the traditional McConnell wing and a minority radical wing, manifested by the Senators who voted to block certification: Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Roger Marshall of Kansas, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Rick Scott of Florida. I do wonder how Cruz—Princeton undergrad, Harvard law—and Hawley—Stanford undergrad, Yale law—can continue to argue, without evidence, that the election was stolen except as a ploy to get votes. (You think?)
Though McConnell mostly trucked with the former president during the past four years, he really had no love for and is now fed up with the former president, in particular after his election denial and definitively after the storming of the Capitol. McConnell’s actions during the impeachment proceedings and stimulus/COVID relief will set the tone. (BTW, I’m focusing on the Senate because the Democratic majority there is more tenuous for Biden.)
More power than ever will be conferred to moderate senators such as Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman on the Republican side and Joe Manchin, Jon Tester and Mark Warner on the Democratic side, as well as Independent Angus King.
No one knows better than Biden that he has two years before the midterms, which thanks to the great American political pendulum, seldom goes well for the incumbent party.
Now let’s turn to the second front in Biden’s unification war, which is to stamp out misinformation in legacy media, particularly Fox News, OAN and Newsmax and the cable and telco companies that carry these stations (including Yahoo’s parent company Verizon which owns FIOS)—and more importantly the internet (ha!). In the latter camp of course, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are in the cross-hairs.
“What’s different with social media, as opposed to regular media, is the lack of validity, and the speed at which it travels,” says Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who tracks online extremism and extremist groups. “That’s the one-two punch. It can be completely false information and travel very, very quickly, boosted by the technology itself — algorithms, share buttons, cool features that we love to use.”
Social media platforms have been remarkably profitable businesses because until the recent hew and cry, they haven’t required much in the way of expensive human beings to oversee what’s on their platforms. “A lot of these companies treat content moderation as an afterthought,” says Squire. “The enormous cost of doing content moderation needs to be part of the conversation. It’s completely absent. In fact, some of the companies like Parler have positioned themselves specifically to not use content moderation. They position it as a good thing. Now we see what happened to them when they took that approach.”
-When it comes to the social media companies, the good news is these are just a few huge companies. Biden should do one-on-ones with Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey and tell them “Look, the old way of doing business, i.e., telling Washington there’s nothing we can do about spreading false information (i.e., you can only stop 87% of it) is over. You need to get real and spend money, or get regulated.” (Call this Operation Jawbone Part One.)
-Repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, at least for the largest social media companies. The law was designed to shield fledgling internet companies not giants. Today Facebook doesn’t need protection from society. Society needs protection from Facebook. Startups can still be safeguarded but must obey the law (see next item.)
-Small companies like Parler wouldn't be off the hook though. Any calls for violence or any other illegal activity and they would be shut down at least for a penalty period.
-Then there’s Operation Jawbone Part Two. Meet with Rupert Murdoch and the other telco and media CEOs and tell them in no uncertain terms that the Department of Justice is watching. Actionable utterances (inciting violence or dangerous misinformation regarding the census and COVID-19) will be pursued. Note to these executives that litigation by private plaintiffs (examples include Seth Rich’s family and Dominion Voting Systems) who have been rightfully maligned won’t be discouraged by this administration.
Yes, the same policies would hold true for liberal media. And yes legitimate criticism by conservative media must never be squelched. And yes it can be difficult to parse this, but difficult is never a reason not to do.
Why is this necessary? Because there are people out there now who think Democrats eat children. Misinformation has almost become its own pandemic. In fact in some instances the two pandemics intersect. Nearly 25% New Yorkers (and 55% of the city’s fire fighters) for instance say they won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a recent survey, no doubt at least in part because of misinformation.
Steven Conn, professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, speaks to this point of misinformation being like a sickness. “I’m increasingly struck that these are folks who inhabit a parallel universe of information,” he said. “I was thinking about it as an autoimmune disease—they’re predisposed to infection and once they’re exposed to it, it takes over the whole brain.”
Fighting misinformation segues nicely to Biden’s third and most difficult front when it comes to unifying America, bringing angry Republican voters back into the fold. I’m specifically referring to those who don’t believe that Joe Biden won the election, so again the former president-Cruz-Hawley radical wing of the party. That group, according to the Pew Research Center, accounts for almost two-thirds of Republican or Republican-leaning Independent voters, which as Rick Newman points out is “more than 40 million Americans, or about one-seventh of the U.S. population.”
Appealing to this group will be a thankless, bang-your-head against the wall job. The only thing worse will be not doing anything at all.
Of course the president will not reach out to white supremacist criminals who will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There should be zero tolerance for Capitol stormings or Charlottesvilles violence and murder or other illegal racist activity.
That’s the accountability stick.
But there also are numerous carrots available for deployment. I’ll get to them in a second but first a word or two about false equivalency.
Conventional wisdom has it that Biden voters are diverse, skew female, wealthy and educated, while those who voted for the incumbent were white, male, poor and less educated. Generally speaking that’s true, but there are nuances here and exceptions. For instance the suburbs can be a mixed bag. And some of the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters were not poor, uneducated, or rural. It’s also the case that Black people make up 20% of rural America, though it’s not like they hold the reins of power there in most instances.
Yes it is the case that poor rural whites have been ignored to a degree by cultural, social and political elites. And yes it’s true that poor urban Blacks have received some attention and that the elites are to a degree more familiar with the plight of urban Black Americans, by dint of close proximity alone. The “oohs” and “ahhs” in response to J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” speak to that. In a way J.D. Vance was more of an alien at Yale Law School than a Black scholarship student from Harlem.
But none of that is to suggest for a moment that the needs of poor urban Blacks have been tended to at the expense of poor rural whites. And furthermore, it is the very definition of false equivalency to suggest that the experience of Black Americans is commensurate with poor white Americans, difficult as in some cases the latter may be. (BTW, J.D. Vance never claimed to have discovered rural white poverty, nor did William Agee and Walker Evans 80 years ago in their book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Rural white poverty goes back to our nation’s origins.)
In her remarkable book, “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson spells out the legacy of Black Americans.
“The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s debt or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.”
And one more and just to tie this to business:
“As a window into their exploitation, consider that in 1740, South Carolina, like other slaveholding states, finally decided to limit the workday of enslaved African-Americans to fifteen hours from March to September and to fourteen hours from September to March, double the normal workday for humans who actually get paid for their labor. In that same era, prisoners found guilty of actual crimes were kept to a maximum of ten hours per workday. Let no one say that African-Americans as a group have not worked for our country.”
This wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. A critical component of the American system for 250 years—followed by another 100 years of Jim Crow. And significantly, uncounted vestiges of all this exist in our society today. None of this ever, ever happened to white people. In no way then is the Black American experience equivalent to the poor rural white narrative of “the coal mine/factory shut down 20-years ago and now the next generation won’t work and is all addicted to heroin and Oxy.” Yes the circumstances of some rural white Americans are bad and certainly needs to be addressed, but the Black American experience has been catastrophic on a multi-century scale. Now much work is needed to address that? More. Much more.
All of this is to say that when we talk about what can be done for rural white Americans, in no way should it detract from efforts to help Black Americans, in fact it should be complementary.
Law professors Ann Eisenberg with Jessica Shoemaker and Lisa Pruitt published an excellent article this week, “5 ways Biden can help rural America thrive and bridge the rural-urban divide” in “The Conversation,” which speaks to helping rural Americans.
Joe Biden should take note.
At the top of the list is a federal program to bring high-speed internet access to rural Americans. (I know first-hand about this and am working on a tiny local program to do this in Maine, which I shouldn’t have to do.) Shoring up the finances of local town and small city governments is also key, according to the professors, as well as reining in big agriculture, along with more social programs like aid for schools and children in poverty.
Not on that list is encouraging immigration, which can greatly boost local economies. “These places desperately need immigrants, no two ways around it,” says Conn of Miami University in Ohio. “Look at demographics, aging population, school districts don't have kids anymore. If you want to save the fabric of these rural communities, you have to attract immigrants of one kind or another. Every time these people come out and denounce immigrants they’re shooting themselves over and over in the foot. Immigrants have always saved us, that’s what it comes down to.” Of course Latin and Asian immigrants have boosted communities all across the West and South, but also consider Arabs in Michigan and Somalis in Minnesota and Maine.
Speaking of Maine again, yes there has been friction with the some 5,000 Somalis that live in Lewiston, Maine (population 36,000), where many of the state’s immigrants live, but net net, the Somalis have boosted this struggling old mill town. And as someone who’s followed this story over the years, one thing I never heard was that the Somalis—who started off working as cleaners and setting up their own food stores etc.—were taking people’s jobs. In fact there have been numerous instances of harmony in Lewiston between hard-boiled Mainers and these Black Muslim immigrants, including the boys state soccer championship, so yes it can be done.
That’s why I think that while Joe Biden has so much on his plate, first and foremost COVID-19 but also climate, foreign policy etc., I believe that uniting our country is his biggest and most consequential challenge. His legacy, and ours as well, will be measured by the success he has, or lack thereof.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on January 23, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.