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The Common Objects of Our Love: Biden’s Inauguration Speech

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Robin Koerner is the Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute. He earned a triple first in natural sciences and a graduate degree in philosophy of science, both from Cambridge. He is the founder of

I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican.

I am, however, an American – a status I spent 12 years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing.

In recognition of that legally and emotionally brutal journey to citizenship, a dear friend gifted me one of the flags that flew above the Capitol on the day I became an American. It arrived with a certificate that had been signed by one of the people’s representatives who then worked in the building it flew over.

That flag is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received and the proudest to own because of what it represents both for our nation - its founding ideals, Constitution, and democracy – and for me - the day I joined the story of my life to the story of this country.

The inauguration of a new President is always an important day in that story. Our President could have chosen any issue to put front and center in his inauguration speech. He could have given us a list of policy areas that the members of his audience, the voters of America, would have responded to very differently according to whether they are Democrats or Republicans, progressives or conservatives.

Thankfully, he didn’t do that. Instead, he did what was needed, putting the nation’s focus on the most important issue of the day - how we divide ourselves; what that division does to our politics; what it does to us; and how we can, and must, choose differently. He was right to do so because our lack of unity or, more precisely, our lack of effort to stay united despite all we care about in common, is (literally, in recent times) killing us.

“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans… The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.” Regardless of your (or my) thoughts about the man who made them, those statements are simply all true.

I would understand if you distrust them because you distrust our new President. I would understand if you believed that they are words merely chosen to manipulate because you don’t believe in his sincerity. For all I know, such a position may be right or it may be wrong: I have no idea because I have never met the man or any of the people closest to him.

You might also, with complete justification, point out that a message of unity coming from a long-time leader of one of the teams that has been working hard for years to divide us, warrants something between skepticism at best and downright derision at worst. But what good will that do? Or rather, what good will that do?

I don’t know what is in Biden’s heart or what he will do as leader. He’s already signed multiple executive orders and I don’t like them all. But fundamentally, that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because our new President’s intention doesn’t change the accuracy of his words today, nor does any fact about him bear on what We the People need to do - each and every one of us in each political conversation we have – if we love our country and choose to see it prosper.

"In politics as in most of life, what you focus on, you make bigger."

Achieving any of our political goals, whether they be Republican, Democrat, conservative, progressive, libertarian or none of the above, depends in the long-run on turning our negative-sum politics, where we choose victories against our ideological opponents at the cost even of achieving great common goals, into positive-sum politics, where we choose achieving common goals even instead of victories against our ideological opponents.

Being right always feels great and getting things right is essential to our building a better country. But being a light in the darkness of our political culture takes more than being right in the wrongness.

Every one of us Americans gets to choose what to focus on and what to do following our President’s plea. "In politics as in most of life, what you focus on, you make bigger." So if you want, you can spend the next few days or even years pointing out all of the very good reasons for skepticism about a politician’s words and intentions, and in so doing you’ll likely be right - but you’ll keep us moving in the direction that is breaking us apart. Alternatively, you can hold on to all your sensible reservations but decide to act as our new President invited us to act today for the betterment of our nation. You can do this even if Biden, and his party, never do.

One or two million Americans taking President Biden at his word about humility, receptivity, and unity will be enough to change American politics and political culture. There are already many times more than that who yearn to see those qualities come to the fore in our national discourse. However many we are, though, we will change our nation only if we can find each other and the rest of the country sees how many of us there are.

That is why I coined the word “humilitarian”.

To be a humilitarian is voluntarily to adopt some rules of engagement that promote unity and trust with political opponents, rather than their opposites. Be a humilitarian Democrat, a humilitarian Republican, or a humilitarian of no party or affiliation. But declare yourself a humilitarian so that others can trust your intent even when they disagree with you.

A #humilitarian declaration enables others of like mind to find you, and you to find them. As more of us use this single word to signal commitment to principles of productive discourse, civility and, where possible, cooperation, more Americans will gain the confidence to reach out to those outside their political comfort zone, and show the powers-that-be that humilitarian principles are political winners.

To steal another phrase from Biden’s inauguration speech, even if you and I can’t change American politics through the example of our power (because we have so little), we can do so through the power of our example (because the happier results of our better choices will be visible to all who know us).

More than that, we can change American politics simply because politics is ultimately nothing more than how we behave toward each other. As Biden said, “We must end this uncivil war … We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts; if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we are willing to stand in the other person's shoes”.

That has always and everywhere been true.

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