By Andrew Wong (V)

On January 20, in a deserted Washington D.C. guarded by more than 25,000 National Guard soldiers, Joe Biden took the Oath of Office to become the 46th President of the United States. 

President Biden takes the reins of the nation in an extremely tumultuous time. Never before in American history has the population been so polarized. According to Pew Research Center, both Democrats and Republicans now lean further to the political left and right, respectively, than at any other point in American history. The reasoning behind this shift may not even be grounded in changing ideals over policy, but rather, in hatred for the other side. A recent study conducted by a group of political scientists from Northwestern, NYU, Stanford, and Harvard which looked at political sectarianism in America concluded that a majority of Republican and Democrat voters today are united not by their love of their own party’s policy, but rather by a hatred of the opposition. As a result, both parties end up moving towards their political extremes as they seek to counter everything the other party stands for––a self-fulfilling prophecy that only widens the gap between Democrat and Republican. 

Perhaps the best example of this great disunity in our nation comes in the form of the violence on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, when a group of right-wing extremists and anarchist agitators broke into the Capitol Building to try and stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. This tragedy shows us that American society faces two major issues:

  1. Americans are losing faith in the democratic system.
  2. Some Americans unfortunately believe that the outlets for them to express their grievances with the government have failed to the point where violence becomes acceptable

The loss of faith in our democratic system can be found directly in the fallout surrounding the 2020 election and the general anger towards a gridlocked Congress. Polls show that more than 74 percent of Republicans and over 42 percent of Independents believed Joe Biden was elected by illegitimate means: a dangerous proposition in a country built on the democratic process. The refusal of election authorities to even listen to this bloc of voters and seriously look into irregularities surrounding the election only exacerbated this situation and only served to assuage fears that something was afoot. 

One can argue about what right these voters had to challenge the results of the election and the validity of their evidence, but nonetheless, the lack of an independent investigation into these election concerns, even if they were built upon shaky evidence, only further damaged voters’ faith in the democratic process. Such an investigation would not have been unusual. Keep in mind, after the 2016 Presidential Election, Democrats pursued a two-year-long investigation into “Russian collusion with the Trump campaign” under the Mueller probe, which was eventually shown to be built on its own mound of shoddy evidence. An independent investigation to debunk theories surrounding fraud in the 2020 election would have gone a long way in preventing what had happened at the Capitol. Even if the investigation were as fruitless and frivolous as the Mueller probe, it would have at least let the people know they were being listened to. 

The second ingredient in creating the explosion at the Capitol was extreme distrust of the government. Americans are tired of seeing the constant gridlock of Congress and the inability of Republican and Democratic caucuses to even compromise on basic legislation. Perhaps the most glaring example of this incompetence and deadlock has been the general failure of Congress to pass meaningful coronavirus relief legislation, even after months of debate. When these two factors of mistrust in the electoral process and anger at the government were combined, it created a ticking time bomb.

Political scientists define pressure release valves in a democracy as means for the public to voice their discontent with the government. Such valves include elections for representatives, a media that values free speech, and civil disobedience and protest. However, with a sizable portion of the American electorate believing the election was rigged, in conjunction with a gridlocked Congress, and months-long COVID-related lockdowns brought down on the people by the government, many of the pressure release valves in American society failed. It was only a matter of time before all the pressure and anger over a questionable election, ineffective legislative branch, and crippling lockdowns exploded and ordinary citizens took matters into their own hands. Let me be clear: violence is inexcusable in all forms, and I wholly condemn the actions of these extremists at the Capitol. Nonetheless, history clearly shows us that when the government fails to fix the pressure release valves, shuts down opinions and ignores requests for change, people will resort to extreme means to make a point. We saw it last spring in Minneapolis and Portland in the context of racial unrest, and we saw it happen again on January 6.

In his inaugural address, President Biden promised to be a “President for all Americans” and “end the uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” As America picks up the pieces and looks towards the future, President Biden must accomplish two things if he wishes to unite this nation. One, he must win back Americans’ trust in the federal government and Congress. The second task is to fix the pressure release systems of the nation, and make it clear to citizens that their government can hear them, and cares about them. While there is no cut-and-dry method to accomplish this, certain tasks, such as passing stronger coronavirus relief bills and safely reopening the economy, would go a long way in helping heal a wounded nation. Biden’s ability to be a successful president is contingent upon him figuring out how to solve these two problems in a way that is beneficial for all Americans. If these problems are allowed to persist, they will only continue to strain the bonds between us.