Political life in the Trump era is full of reasons to believe this is naïve, as Biden has acknowledged. But because of Trump’s toxic bluster, we have not focused enough on the success of Biden’s core message and the fact that it helped him win more votes than anyone in American history.
Boil it down and you’ll see it’s a philosophy that is all but extinct in politics today: to treat other people as you would like to be treated.
Politics predicated upon the Golden Rule might sound silly on the surface. This is simple kindergarten wisdom, rooted in the most basic enlightened self-interest. But some of the thorniest political debates become clearer when held up to this lens: the fight for equal rights is, at its essence, about treating other people as you would like to be treated. And for those who like to say they support “faith-based” politics, there’s nothing more faith-based than this idea. It’s the core of what Jesus preached at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12) and is expressed in every major faith tradition.
The Golden Rule has been MIA in American politics, dismissed as a sucker’s bet in the Trump years. But democracy depends upon goodwill between fellow citizens, the moral sense that stops people from applying entirely different standards to their own side of the aisle. It is easily excused when we’ve been conditioned to seeing political opponents as personal enemies. But it bears repeating that much of the evil in the world comes from seeing and judging people as members of groups rather than individuals.
De-escalating this condition in our democracy will not happen overnight. Trust has declined and bipartisan muscle-memory has atrophied. There will be partisan pressures and plenty of pearl-clutching at the Democrat’s slightest deviation from the high-road, used as an excuse to play the victim and scuttle any deal.
But Joe Biden is not an inexperienced idealist. He comes into the Oval Office with more years of public service than any president in modern history. He understands the use of power and the simple fact that elections have consequences. He also knows that the only way to get major legislation passed with an enduring mandate is to reach across the aisle — which will require reasoned appeals and enough Republican senators who will negotiate in good faith on issues of common interest: from Covid-relief, to infrastructure and immigration reform and even climate change. There is still some common ground to be found in the conscience of individual senators.
Presidential leadership matters. Crucially, Joe Biden believes that decency can be the most practical form of politics. And that could make all the difference as we try to turn the page to a new chapter in our history, if we try to pull ourselves from our respective partisan ramparts and insist on treating other people as we would like to be treated.