How can Biden shape a rhetoric of unity and inclusion in a nation that cannot agree on democratic values, and does not agree on truth itself? He might begin by reading Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural. Lincoln drew a hard line at sedition — the necessary commitment of a government under challenge. But he did not assume that his opponents, even in the South, were monolithic. He made arguments designed to drive wedges between moderates and radicals. And he asserted the existence of a deep, mystical bond of citizenship that many — both secessionists and abolitionists — did not feel. This did not solve the immediate political crisis, but it preserved the possibility of national healing beyond that crisis.
Political rhetoric also does not work by magic, as if great phrases — “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” — had the power of incantations. But the best rhetoric can provide a mental refuge to which men and women of goodwill can repair. It can assure them that they are not alone in their worries or in their decency. It can set out the vision of a union — a constitutional system — that has survived deep injustice, electoral controversy and fraternal warfare. And it can affirm the existence of a shared national truth in which the winner does not take all, in which political minorities are respected and consulted, in which citizens of every background are treated with respect and dignity.