AS PRESIDENT-elect Joe Biden begins formulating his domestic policy agenda for the next four years, he might want to look beyond the end of his term in 2024 to 2026. That is the year the United States celebrates the 250th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, and as the nation prepares to celebrate that milestone, Biden has an opportunity to help heal some of the civic and institutional wounds that have been festering in the country for far too long.
How to achieve comity after a combative and polarizing four years under Donald Trump? Talking about unity and healing, as Biden did on the campaign trail, will not be enough; but there are two projects from the Trump era that Biden could build on and, in the process, perhaps encourage detente in our ongoing culture war.
In July, Trump issued an executive order calling on the Department of Interior to begin planning for the creation of a National Garden of American Heroes to be completed in time for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The timing of the order was pointedly political—protests raged across the nation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and protestors were toppling statues of the Founders and defacing monuments—but the impulse to honor the country’s founding principles and protect monuments to important historical figures was laudable.
Biden could build on that impulse without embracing the partisan grab-bag Garden of Heroes concept of the Trump administration. Given the public’s unease with some of the destruction of monuments (including the toppling of statues of George Washington and famous American abolitionists), Biden could create a project that allowed agencies such as the National Endowment for Humanities to rebuild statues and monuments that were felled while also sponsoring deliberative debates akin to those that many towns and cities in the South have embraced as they consider the removal of Confederate memorials.
More importantly, Biden could take the opportunity to bolster civics education in the United States with new educational initiatives, and in the process combat the radicalization of history that has occurred among ideologists on both the left and the right in recent years. America’s history is neither the story of relentless oppression that is peddled by many on the Left nor the uncomplicated, patriotic narrative of equal opportunity promoted by many on the Right.
To that end, Biden should not reject out of hand President Trump’s Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, issued in September. The order called for an end to the use of “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in federal government agencies. CRT, which escaped the confines of academia only recently but has spread like kudzu into human resource departments and federal, state, and local governments nationwide, makes many questionable, ahistorical claims about race. Its overarching message—that the nation’s post-Civil Rights Era, color-blind approach to equal opportunity is itself a racist construct—encourages collective guilt on the part of white people and collective victimization on the part of everyone else based on the accident of one’s birth. This is training in division, not diversity, and it should have no place in our government. Biden should instead call for a thorough assessment of existing federal diversity training and educational materials, with an eye to ensuring that they are free of ideologically questionable assumptions and ahistorical claims, and verifiable proof of their effectiveness.
With the country in the grips of a new culture war, Americans chose the more conciliatory Biden over the ever-combative Trump for president, but their support of Republicans down-ballot, particularly in state legislatures, suggests they were not eager for sweeping or revolutionary political change. This vote for a calmer, divided government could yield opportunities for civic renewal and a less polarized politics, but only if leaders like Biden are willing to pursue policies that remind Americans of the values we broadly share rather than the ideological differences that sometimes divide us.
In the areas of civic education and public monuments, Biden has an opportunity to practice what he has been preaching about unifying the country, particularly regarding issues of race. In the short term, with the country facing the dual challenge of rebuilding the economy and surviving a pandemic, such concerns will no doubt be secondary. But in the long term, we must tend to our nation’s civic health as much as we do to its physical and economic health.
Christine Rosen is Senior Writer at Commentary magazine and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.