Sincere or not, President Biden’s inaugural pledge to unite the country is dead on arrival. I say that not to sow excess cynicism or traffic in media hyperbole, but to underscore the critical reason why.
Some observers pointed immediately to Biden’s early actions on policy matters like Israel and abortion as proof his pledge lacked credibility. Indeed, those actions were highly partisan and ill-advised, but they’re also contentious issues on which reasonable people have disagreed for years. Even in 2021, we can still talk about them.
Biden, however, will not oversee the restoration of national unity—whatever that actually means—because our culture now operates on a bloated definition of bigotry that unjustly implicates decent people in the evils of racism, sexism, violence, and hatred. Biden and his administration accept this definition and will consequently fan the flames.
They already have. On Wednesday, Biden set out to sign an executive order that would prohibit the federal government from “discriminat[ing] on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” His list of Day One executive orders also included several measures on “diversity” and “equity.” This innocuous language masks intensely charged policies built to enforce the left’s standards by rendering dissent hateful.
Biden deliberately delivered an inaugural address that steered clear of “deplorable” language, but enforcing a definition of “gender identity” that requires people to accept of cultural leftism or face charges of violence and hatred basically has the same effect. Decent people disagree on this matter and on others, but the left’s current progressive-or-bigot binary formulation reflexively defines many decent people as bigots.
That’s what drives them to candidates like Donald Trump. They’re tired of being called racists for voting Romney-Ryan or disliking Colin Kaepernick. There’s a key distinction between saying “Everyone who voted for Trump contributed to racism,” and “Everyone who voted for Trump is racist.” There’s a difference between saying “Failure to use preferred pronouns could contribute to violence” and “Failure to use preferred pronouns is violence.”
Academia’s abstract, post-structuralist definitions of violence and bigotry migrated with college graduates into boardrooms, newsrooms, and writer’s rooms, growing the cultural snowball enough that politicians are only part of the problem. They have flowery arguments for why words can constitute physical violence, women can be anti-woman, black conservatives can be white supremacists, and everyone is racist. Relegated to classroom discussions on Judith Butler, these arguments are one thing. But as the intellectual foundation for our new standards, they are not rooted in reality.
In reality, it is of course possible to be a decent person who disagrees with the left’s cultural worldview. It’s both more accurate and more constructive to distinguish between people who genuinely believe in racial and sexual equality and the remaining people who genuinely don’t. Ben Shapiro is not David Duke, although powerful journalists and cultural arbiters treat him that way, and consequently leave a whole lot of his readers feeling like they’re being implicated in bigotry as well. They are.
The silver lining here is that bigotry is rightfully stigmatized in our society, so much so that it’s just about the worst insult you can hurl at a patriotic American. That’s why people who dissent from leftism are so offended by these baseless charges that they look to fighters like Trump.
Bigotry is, of course, still alive in this country. But it dwells not in the hearts of the vast majority of conservatives and centrists and even authentic leftists who happen to disagree on particular questions of race and sex. Biden and The New York Times don’t need to agree with the conservative agenda to foster some sense of unity. They merely need to dispense with the notion that dissenters from cultural leftism are necessarily bigots.
Hyperbole is obviously an immutable feature of political rhetoric. That sense of unity Biden wishes to recapture, however, will elude us until the cultural left abandons its bloated definitions of bigotry. It’ll require more than a letter in Harper’s or a Boomer president who waxes poetic about serving “all Americans.”
This is about our institutions purging their dominant cultural ethos and cleaning up the pipeline. At best, it will take many years and a lot more than presidential platitudes.