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Healing A Divided Nation Is Possible If We're Willing To Work At It, UT Professor Says

Mohammad Zaid celebrates in front of Trump supporters at the Texas Capitol after Joe Biden was declared the projected winner of the presidential election on Nov. 7.
Michael Minasi
Mohammad Zaid celebrates in front of Trump supporters outside of the Capitol after Joe Biden was declared the projected winner of the election. UT Austin professor Peniel Joseph describes democracy as a rough and deliberative process in which people have to be willing to both pose – and lose – strong arguments.

There's a lot dividing the United States right now: the outcome of the presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, an ailing economy, systemic racism and violence. There have been calls for post-election healing, but that sometimes seems out of reach.

Peniel Joseph is optimistic, though. He directs theCenter for the Study of Race and Democracy at UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs and is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values. Joseph says healing can happen, but we first need to acknowledge the hurts before we can do the work.

Joseph says he believes some of that work has to start at the top. In his inaugural address on Jan 20, he says, Joe Biden will need to "provide us a vision of what unites us, even as he's very honest and blunt about what divides us."

Joseph says work also needs to be done on the individual level. In this difficult and divisive year, he says, people have come to understand "how fortunate we are and how fragile and vulnerable our democratic institutions are." Now is the "time to nurture them and tend them like a garden," he says.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript to hear why Joseph believes "we're going to be fine" if we "have a unifying vision that's based in the best traditions of American history and American democracy."

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Peniel Joseph: The only way we can get to some kind of reconciliation is that we have to acknowledge these fault lines, and then we can reach out our hand as long as the other side really stops closing its fist. And we have to have common denominators about how to expand democracy and expand equality and expand justice, because right now we don't have those common denominators between those broad sides. These conflicts will just continue if we just try to paper them over.

KUT: How do we find that common ground? There are so many differences and they seem so deeply held, but there have been times in history where we have been able to find some common ground.

If we go back to 1964,1965 President [Lyndon] Johnson has been reelected – has been elected rather – in a landslide. The nation was in a crisis in the late winter; early spring of 1965 centered around Black dignity and citizenship and voting rights.

So we go back to Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The late Congressman John Lewis was one of the over 500 peaceful demonstrators who were violently assaulted by Alabama state troopers. And the entire nation saw this on television. And people came down to Selma, including a white minister, James Reeb, who was killed by a white mob in Selma.

What Lyndon Johnson does on March 15, 1965, is do a joint address to the Congress. And in that joint address, even though the nation is divided – if you did polling data, it wasn't like a huge majority of Americans were in support of voting rights, were in support of Black citizenship and dignity – what Johnson does is really articulate this vision.

What he does is say that what occurred in Selma and the violence in Selma was wrong, and it was anti-democratic. It's a political wrong, but it's also a moral wrong. And what he does is say that this moment in history is connected to the dignity of man and for the destiny of democracy. And so what Johnson does in a very, very deeply divided nation is really lay out this grand vision of voting rights and equal justice.

What President-elect Biden has to do once he's inaugurated is really in that inaugural address provide us a vision of what unites us, even as he's very honest and blunt about what divides us.

Joe Biden didn't win in a landslide and there are folks saying he didn't win at all. Are we ready and primed for a big vision and big ideas and leadership going forward?

Broadly conceived, when you look at one party [the Democratic Party] has won seven of the last eight elections in terms of popular vote, there is a majority consensus of trying to build that beloved community in our own lifetimes that's anti-racist; that aids the poor; that wants everybody to have health care and a great education and access; that believes in racial justice; that believes in social justice. I do think you can do that big picture even though there's always going to be people who are sniping because of these partisan divides.

But I think if he leads and offers that unifying vision, folks from the other side are going to have to come over to the Biden-[Kamala] Harris vision only because that's the vision that – it's not saying that vision is infallible – but it's rooted in the origin story of American democracy.

All of this work is obviously critically important work that takes a lot of attention and energy. Do you think Americans – kind of exhausted from the pandemic and the election and the divisions – have the physical and mental energy to do this work right now?

Oh, absolutely. I think that this is what's on everybody's mind. This has been the year of intersectional, anti-racist justice. Of course, there's going to be debates. Democracy is a rough process. It's a deliberative process. But that means that you have to be willing to lose arguments in a democracy. You have to be willing to pose strong arguments as well.

I think when we think about this election, there was an argument and anti-racism, white supremacy, all these things were on the ballot. And I think Americans, to their everlasting credit, overwhelmingly chose hope over anger. They chose love and justice over fear and scapegoating. That means that they're ready to work.

There's no time to be tired. We understand how fortunate we are and how fragile and vulnerable our democratic institutions are. Now's the time to nurture them and tend them like a garden. Abraham Lincoln in his second inauguration very famously said: We are friends, not enemies. And he was talking about a deeply divided country in the aftermath of a civil war – where over 700,000 people died.

Dr. [Martin Luther] King said to not look at people who were political adversaries as enemies. He didn't want to look at anyone as enemies, because he wanted to love and understand their children and their perspective. But King also said that he believed in democracy, and he's quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker by saying the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It was non-negotiable for King in terms of human rights and Black citizenship and dignity for all people.

And if we hold on to that and we have a unifying vision that's based in the best traditions of American history and American democracy, we're going to be fine.

We just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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