What happens when the dog catches the bumper that he’s been chasing?
I vividly recall the jubilation that I felt as my then-wife and I attended Barack Obama’s first inauguration. It was extremely cold and I had moderate food poisoning, but neither situation dampened my enthusiasm. As we were on our way back to our hotel, I overheard a comment that struck me as gratuitously unnecessary. A woman who was not very far from us said (at a volume that was designed to be heard), “He shouldn’t have had a minister speak at the end. Not all of us are Christians.”
Her lament arrested my attention. It just seemed so odd, so ill-timed and so narcissistic. Yes, not everyone who supported President Obama was a Christian. But millions of us are. (Not to mention that millions of non-Christians weren’t offended by this gesture.) At a time of such revelry, hope and promise, this person focused on a benediction that clearly was intended to be inclusive. Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate and the House. We had caught the proverbial bumper. Thus, the comment reminded that some people actively seek the cloud in any silver lining.
I reflected on that event as I watched Joe Biden’s inauguration. The new president struck a tone that was at once humble and triumphant. He managed to be both proud and conciliatory. I’ve not met Joe Biden, but I am fortunate to know a few people with whom he is very close. It is not hyperbolic to say that everyone who actually knows Biden likes him — flaws and all. Yet, neither his likability nor his close relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell guarantee that he will experience the principled cooperation for which he has sincerely called.
It is reasonable to assume that Biden’s request for unity was directed at Republicans. However, long-simmering ideological divisions within the Democratic Party are likely to boil over in the next several weeks. Among the reasons that I make this argument is the fact that we have witnessed the sometimes-vicious verbal attacks — from “progressives” — that former President Obama has endured since he left office.
Another example is the fact that some Black Democrats were very vocal about California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to select someone of Hispanic origin to serve out now-Vice President Kamala Harris’ Senate term. (The irony is that a fairly high percentage of Black Democrats weren’t happy with having Harris — a Black woman — in that seat.) The legitimate concern about the exclusion of African Americans must not morph into a desire for racial equity that denies opportunity to other people of color.
In the 1990s, prominent Republicans repeatedly (and falsely) claimed that their caucus was a “big tent party,” meaning that they welcomed people from a wide variety of backgrounds. A few years later, this ethos would give way to incessant complaints about RINOs — “Republicans in Name Only.” Today, a large contingent of Democrats are at least as guilty as Republicans are with regard to spurning those who fail to fully accept their rigid ideology — even as they (i.e., Democrats) continue to promote “tolerance” as the ultimate virtue.
Regular readers of my column know that I supported Joe Biden from the time that he launched his campaign. I did so because I am a centrist (as is Biden). Further, I believed that he had the best chance to defeat Donald Trump. Thus, I echo the president’s call for all Americans to come together. Unity does not mean unanimity or uniformity. There can be — and should be — unity in diversity.
Extremists on both the right and the left frequently seem unable or perhaps unwilling to accept that most Americans disagree with many of their views. Disagreement is an inherent human trait that cannot be eradicated by any human institution. Further, as I frequently remind my friends, the people with whom they strongly disagree are not going anywhere.
Could it be that I am making too much of Democrats’ intraparty divisions? Perhaps. (Indeed, I hope that I am.) Yet, I am very concerned that those who have no understanding of the necessity of compromise will end up robbing President Biden — and themselves — of the opportunity to advance racial equity.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.