With Joe Biden’s election, a major historical barrier was broken. Until now, the United States has only had one Catholic president.
When John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic in the White House, in a country that was then still strongly Protestant, it was a rather big deal. Sixty years later, the fact of Mr. Biden’s Catholicism goes unmentioned and unnoticed. Nobody is mentioning it, because nobody cares.
Hallelujah for that. In a time of high and growing political polarization, where disagreements are increasingly disagreeable, right and left live on distant planets, and the joy of cancelling those who say the wrong thing is what passes for debate, the discovery that an old source of conflict no longer has the power to drive people apart is good news. It’s a reminder that, though some politicians, and the algorithms of Twitter and Facebook, often forge emotional bonds by feeding shared antipathies, a liberal society works best when citizens get beyond the poles of “us” and “them,” and recognize those who are different or with whom we disagree as still part of a shared “us.”
Earlier this week, we wrote about what Canada’s Conservatives, both the federal party and its provincial cousins, should learn – or rather unlearn – from their U.S. relatives.
For the sake of Canada’s future, the right side of Canada’s political spectrum has to turn its back on Donald Trump’s hyperpolarizing politics. There is, however, a strong temptation to do otherwise. Mr. Trump did, after all, capture the presidency in 2016, against all odds. And he barely missed repeating that feat in 2020. If he’d found a mere 43,000 extra voters across Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, he’d have been re-elected.
But Mr. Trump wasn’t re-elected. So let’s consider what the other side of the Canadian political establishment can learn, or not, from Mr. Biden’s successful approach.
Frustrated voters sometimes want to burn the house down, and Mr. Trump bottled that lightning in 2016. Historically, Americans have been far more willing than Canadians to set things on fire. The U.S. is, after all, the product of a bloody, eight-year revolution sparked by a minor tax dispute, while Canada is a country created in part by refugees from that first American civil war.
But even in the U.S., voters grow exhausted from their own passions.
That’s why Mr. Biden pitched himself as the candidate of a return to reasonableness.
In every word and act, he tried to embody an anti-Trumpian calm. And he promised to try – difficult though it will be – to bring people together.
The people he aims to bring together include Republican voters. He knew that many people who backed Mr. Trump had once voted for him and Barack Obama. His whole approach was about leaving the door open to them.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton committed the unpardonable gaffe – a gaffe being when a politician accidentally says what she’s really thinking – of calling Mr. Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” Where Ms. Clinton recoiled, Mr. Biden reached out.
In the game of electioneering, there are those who argue the clearest path to victory is through base motivation, which means polarizing the electorate. The scarier the “them,” the more motivating for “us.” Mr. Trump has been a genius at it.
Mr. Biden, in contrast, went out of his way to avoid demonizing people who might have leaned the other way in 2016, or mocking their concerns or fears. On the contrary, he sought to allay them.
One of Mr. Trump’s jumped-up appeals to voters centred on trying to take advantage of the riots and looting that accompanied some Black Lives Matter protests last summer. He told voters that Democrats were going to let crime run wild, making the election a choice between the extremes of “defund the police” or “blue lives matter.”
Mr. Biden’s response was to reject that false choice. He condemned rioting, full stop, and praised peaceful protests, full on. He backed both the rule of law and racial justice.
Mr. Trump was selling anxiety, and even paranoia. Mr. Biden went the other way, sticking to offering practical solutions to the practical problems of middle-class Americans, from COVID-19 to policing to health insurance. Analysts will long debate exactly why Mr. Biden won. But he did, and there’s a lesson for Liberals and New Democrats in there.
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