Q&A: What Does Unity Look Like? Scholars Reflect on Joe Biden’s Inauguration

Melody Barnes, left, and Laurent Dubois co-direct UVA’s Democracy Initiative.
Melody Barnes, left, and Laurent Dubois co-direct UVA’s Democracy Initiative.
Wednesday’s inauguration looked a bit different, as the pandemic prevented large crowds like this one in 2009, but nonetheless Joe Biden took the oath of office at noon on the U.S. Capitol steps.
Wednesday’s inauguration looked a bit different, as the pandemic prevented large crowds like this one in 2009, but nonetheless Joe Biden took the oath of office at noon on the U.S. Capitol steps.
Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

Speaking at his inauguration Wednesday, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden issued a call for healing and unity from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Biden, joined by new Vice President Kamala Harris, gazed out over a sea of flags representing the many thousands of Americans who could not celebrate his inauguration in person during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and acknowledged that the country faces many challenges. Even the steps where he was standing had been overrun by an insurrection exactly two weeks ago.

Unity, the new president said, is the path forward.

“I know that speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know that the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know that they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal, that all are created equal, and harsh, ugly reality of racism, classicism, nativism …” Biden said, citing moments of crisis through American history. “In each of those moments, enough of us have come together to carry us forward and we can do that now. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”

Students and faculty at the University of Virginia have been reckoning, and will continue to reckon, with the issues Biden referenced through a range of efforts focused on democracy, both in the United States and worldwide. UVA’s Democracy Initiative, for example, was founded in 2018 and uses research, teaching and public events to explore pressing challenges to democracy worldwide and share insights with students, researchers, policymakers and the public.

On January 20, we spoke with the initiative’s leaders, Co-Director for Policy and Public Affairs Melody Barnes and Co-Director for Academic Affairs Laurent Dubois, to get their take on Biden’s call for unity. Barnes, who directed the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Barack Obama’s administration, is also a professor of practice at UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and a Distinguished Fellow at the School of Law. Dubois is the Democracy Initiative Professor in the Corcoran Department of History.

Here are their thoughts.

Q. Joe Biden has repeatedly referenced his hope of bringing the country together. What will that actually look like, in your opinion? 

Dubois: All of the events of the last few years and the last few months have really made us think about our institutions and Americans’ investment and involvement in the project of democracy itself. As a historian, when I think about what unity might look like now, I think both about the more recent challenges we are dealing with, such as the role social media plays in our politics and our discourse, and then very old issues, questions around race and equality that have essentially been at work since the founding of this country.

We need to find a way to hold, at the same time, our most pressing immediate needs alongside an understanding of the large sweep of our history. Understanding that history, in all its complexity, is the best foundation for unity, and allows us to come together to participate in the future of our democratic institutions, which offer powerful tools for shaping democracy. We will not be united in all of our opinions, of course, but perhaps we can agree on the importance of the tools of democracy in shaping our future. 

Barnes: I agree, and for many Americans, both those who voted for Biden and those who did not but do accept his presidency, I think unity can come through a spirit of tolerance and pluralism. Joe Biden has already indicated that he wants to reach out to all Americans. I think that will show up in the form of empathy and policy – for the plight of Americans who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, who are suffering because of the pandemic, who are economically insecure in a number of other ways, or who just do not feel like their voices have been heard, especially when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

I also think that the way the new president carries himself and approaches his work will be important to many Americans. “Dignity” and “competency” are words that I have heard quite a bit – from progressives and conservatives. Many Americans hope for thoughtful attention to the process of governing, as well as reliance on facts so their circumstances improve.

Q. What do you see as some of the root causes of our current polarization? Disinformation has been a big problem, as it seems different groups cannot agree on a common set of facts. Racial injustice and deepening inequality are other huge concerns. 

Dubois: While there are aspects of the current situation that have accelerated division, division has always been present in democracies. You can go into any historical period and find extreme divergences. I think the root cause of that is very powerful clashes between different groups and communities, and the fundamental question of how we resolve conflict and tension.

In a democratic system, the ideal is that tensions that might lead to violent conflict should instead be channeled into what Melody was describing – the mechanisms and institutions of governance. That requires empathy, tolerance and even when deep passions are involved, channeling those passions into productive engagement. Our challenge right now is to make sure that commitment to the democratic process remains strong. I think certain groups in this country have always known democracy is both vital and fragile – those that have fought for their civil rights, for example, did not have the luxury of forgetting – but as a country we clearly need to commit to the idea of resolving our differences through democracy.   

Barnes: Absolutely. The root causes of race, gender, ethnicity and class have been with us from the beginning.

I think the debate about federalism is another important issue. There has always been a level of distrust in the federal government. Over time – not just the last four years, but the last 50 years – that distrust has grown, leading some to abandon our democratic institutions, the architecture of our democracy. That is an important element of what we saw on Jan. 6 [in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol].

Now, I think it is important to build or rebuild trust in those institutions, and trust that those institutions can work for Americans. Citizens need to believe that while they may not get the exact outcome they want, the process was fair.

Dubois: It’s important to think about all of these challenges holistically, from the psychological dimensions of how social media affects our social, emotional and cultural fabric, to how all of these issues refract and ramify in the political realm. Melody often says that politics is a lagging indicator. What we have seen in politics recently is reflective of broader shifts in our society, and of the interplay of so many different issues. The work of government, and of scholars, is to think about all of those pieces.

Melody Barnes, left, and Laurent Dubois co-direct UVA’s Democracy Initiative.
Melody Barnes, left, and Laurent Dubois co-direct UVA’s Democracy Initiative.

Q. Where do you see hope as you look at America right now? 

Barnes: I see hope in the many individuals, including so many young people, now involved in politics and paying attention to issues of equity, justice, government and democracy in ways they have not before. There is a very keen, in some places very painful, sense of the way inattention to democracy and its workings can undermine life in deadly ways. Our form of government requires informed, engaged citizens, and the fact that more people are attentive to this gives me hope, that we have what is necessary to continue building and strengthening our democracy.

I see it reflected in our Student Advisory Council at the Democracy Initiative, in the number of students who step forward, and the way that they think about and talk about democracy. I am also hopeful when I learn about formal truth and reconciliation efforts at the local level, as more and more people calling for that important work.

Dubois: I agree. In some ways, all of the drama of this past year obscured the remarkable mobilization and involvement in democracy that we saw in the 2020 election, both in the presidential election and in the runoffs in Georgia. There was impressive investment in democracy at every level, with a record number of voters turning out for both parties, in both urban areas and rural areas. All of those people deciding to participate in democracy is so important, and it can spur change.

I was thinking recently about the Women’s March, after the inauguration four years ago. That march was one of the largest protests in American history, and its participants channeled that energy into increasing women’s representation in politics, which we are seeing the fruits of today, as the first female vice president was sworn in.

There have been other examples like that, from the Black Lives Matter protests to calls for justice and education in how we think about the history of the Civil War and its representation in our cities. Many people now feel that they cannot just sit back and watch, and I think that brings us to an important moment of possibility, one where we can look squarely at the complex history that has made this country what it is, while investing ourselves in the possibility of what it can become.

Barnes: Absolutely, and it’s important to note that these questions and conversations are happening in both the progressive and conservative movements, if not at the fringes, then certainly at the center – more debate, more engagement and more people running for office.

Q. On the other hand, what are some of your concerns? 

Barnes: I am concerned about the root causes that we have highlighted. People have found them difficult to address because they require shifts in democratic culture and power. These are complicated and difficult issues, and, even when something happens to shock our consciences, like our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder or the insurrection on Jan. 6, we tend to want to quickly avert our eyes, to move back to a place of comfort as opposed to sitting with and pushing through the discomfort to get to a better place. That is a persistent concern of mine.

Dubois: I think, through the ups and downs we have all experienced, there is a fear that things might become so frayed that it will become impossible for us to speak to each other, that our institutions might not be able to withstand a certain level of division. I think that fear is important; it can help us work to overcome challenges. It is a complicated thing, to balance hope and optimism with realism about the dangers that we face, but we have to hold onto both that sense of possibility and that sense of worry, realizing that the future is not written yet.

Q. What role can each of us play, as citizens and participants in this democracy? 

Dubois: I think about people who get involved in campaigns, who find it worthwhile even when their candidate does not win, to get involved in those debates, conversations and processes. I even see it in the youth soccer team I coach – this idea that it’s not only wining that is important, but the value of playing the game, of participating and learning. There is this sense that there is something in the system that is worthwhile, whether or not you find the outcome to be perfect.

There are so many ways for Americans to be involved, to work in our democracy and to change their neighborhood, their town, their state and their country. Every time we choose to do that, just the simple act of engaging has value.

Barnes: Obviously, elections matter. We have the opportunity to elect those who best represent us and the democratic culture we hope to build and sustain. That is everyone’s responsibility, and I know elected officials respond to their constituents. President Obama would walk into meetings – holding letters from people across the country – and ask if our proposed solutions solved their problems. When I worked on Capitol Hill, I saw  members of Congress try to respond to the needs, interests and wishes of their constituents.

Of course, the right to vote is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. We have to work, every day, to build a healthy democratic culture. We all have a role to play in the way that we talk to our children, the way that we engage with those who are different from us, in our desire to seek facts and truth, and even to sit in places that are uncomfortable. We must each commit ourselves to the democratic experiment and the principles that give it life, like tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law. We need to do that every day, no matter where we live, what we do or who we are.