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Every four years, a president is inaugurated in a ceremony filled with pomp and tradition, highlighting the strength of American democracy and its commitment to a peaceful transfer of power.
This year, two weeks after a mob violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, that message is especially poignant.
Images of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with former presidents, walking through the 228-year-old building that was ransacked and filled with anger and fear on Jan. 6 was a heartening reminder of America’s strength, and of its promise.
“We’ve learned again that democracy is precious,” Biden said at the beginning of his inaugural address. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Democracy prevailed not just through the oaths that both Biden and Harris took but through former Vice President Mike Pence’s attendance at the inauguration, and his adherence to the Constitution and federal law on Jan. 6. It is Pence who has essentially filled the role of a chief executive in recent weeks as the former president shirked his responsibilities and left Washington early on Wednesday morning.
American democracy also became a better reflection of its people as Harris became the first woman and first Black and first Asian American to become vice president.
The past four years have been filled with a lot of pain, distrust and breaking of norms of politics, governing and common decency. Wednesday’s events, changed and shrunken because of the coronavirus pandemic and lingering security concerns, are a reminder that Americans, as they have done before, can rise above the rancor and division to look forward to a brighter future.
We’re not so pollyanna to believe that the road ahead will be easy or that past wounds will heal quickly. Nor do we fail to recognize that 15,000 National Guard members are guarding Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Capitol, which is surrounded by fencing topped with concertina wire.
Like Biden, we do not believe that unity will simply happen or that unity means unanimity of opinion. We understand, too, that much work must be done to address America’s many challenges, and that we all have a role to play in that work. But having a president who believes in and champions unity rather than division and selfish gain begins to return America to its place as a beacon of hope and leadership.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days,” Biden said to audience members, all of whom appeared to be wearing masks. “I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real.”
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. … And so today, at this time, in this place, let’s start afresh, all of us,” Biden also said. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”
This seeing and listening, and most importantly respecting, one another is essential if we are to rise to the numerous challenges Biden enumerated — the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, racial inequity and injustice, domestic terrorism, climate change.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” Biden said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured,” he said.
America watched on Jan. 6 as the manipulation and manufacturing of facts helped fuel a hateful mob, which tried but failed to deter Congress from fulfilling its constitutional role of counting Electoral College votes. The mob’s failure was democracy’s triumph, even as it cost lives and left the country on edge.
The mixture of emotions that so many Americans have felt in recent weeks was eloquently captured by Amanda Gorman, our first youth poet laureate, who spoke at the end of the inaugural ceremony.
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy,” she read from her poem “The Hill We Climb,” written after the attack on the Capitol where she spoke. “And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, It can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”