Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
When President-elect Joe Biden says he will be a president for both sides, he signals that there are different political perspectives in our country that are legitimate. This may seem to be a small point, yet it reminds us that the work of the citizenry is not over and done with now that the 2020 election is behind us. It’s actually just getting started.
A president-elect who commits to leading the entire electorate, not just the slightly-larger-than half who voted for him, does two important things. First, he models the change he wants to see in our country, showing us that he respects people who hold different views than his own. By doing so, he honors the experiences people have had and the lives they have lived.
President-elect Biden also gathers us into a single entity with such a statement, by vowing to serve both those who supported him, and those who did not, and even those so disenfranchised they did not or could not vote. He is not allowing us to jettison the perspectives of those different from ours. In the country he will lead, we remain connected to the people who hold those perspectives, in one community.
The stance of President-elect Biden suggests that we are all going to be asked to keep doing hard work in the months ahead. Rather than return to our political corners, we are going to be asked to support the United States Constitution, which serves as combination mission statement and code of conduct for the country. The code is baked into the oath our elected officials take to uphold the constitution, but that does not mean we are off the hook. Even though we are not elected officials, once we vote, we are committing to that same standard. His words gently remind us that this is so.
Hewing to an oath puts the country’s interests appropriately above those of any party. Leaders in business and academia have studied how the political parties are failing to serve the interests of Americans. I expect President-elect Biden to reach across the aisle as he fills his cabinet and other government positions in his administration, to model his commitment to bipartisanship.
Though my commentary may ring too Pollyanish for some, I’m a realist. This administration will stumble, just as we all do. But when a leader is committing to serve those who have supported him and those who have not, he is also committing to learn what those who do not support his policies think. In that scenario, I like our odds. This is true governance. Long-time nonprofit governance expert Dick Chait defines governance as generative dialogue.1 And William Isaacs teaches us how to engage in such dialogue in his book Dialogue, the Art of Thinking Together.2 To know one another, we must first engage one another and our primary means of doing so is through dialogue. Indeed, in Isaacs model, to oppose someone is to respect them. And isn’t this what we need, a healthy respect for those who have had different experiences and hold different views than our own?
Generative dialogue differs from debate. There is no winning or losing side. Rather, there are new ideas, born of discussions that evolve towards fresh approaches to creating something different than what either “side” wanted.
This belief that there is more than one legitimate political approach to reaching the ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness is embodied by the United States design as a republic. Democracy has always been a full engagement sport, and democracy in a republic not only encourages, but requires, engagement at the local level, by each citizen. To do your part, start by respecting those people with different views than your own, who voted for the other team, or did not vote at all. Pick up the phone and ask them what they believe and why. Listen, and if they do not ask you why you hold your views, set that aside. When President-elect Biden says he will be a President for all sides, this is what he is asking of us.
1 Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor, Governance as Leadership (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, 2005).
2 Isaacs, William. Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together.