Since the presidential vote of 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, there has been much talk about polarisation in American society. Tensions have escalated, and on the fringes, they have even led to violence and death. Increasingly, many are wondering if Americans will ever be able to get along again.
This issue came to the fore most recently when presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire from his black rivals Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and others for touting his ability to work with Southern segregationists decades ago as an example of bipartisan cooperation.
Biden defended his past relationships and civility with white supremacists, such as Senator James O Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E Talmadge of Georgia, who both opposed civil rights for black people. He also said he can cooperate with Republicans if he is elected president in 2020, because they “know better” and will change once Trump leaves office. As he has done throughout his career, Biden is now fashioning himself in his electoral campaign as a moderate who seeks the middle ground and is able to build bridges between both sides of the political spectrum.
But Biden is wrong. The country will not move forward by appeasing extremists and ignoring the damage they have done. Justice for all people is non-negotiable, and any attempt to find a middle ground means denying the urgency of the current political climate. There can be no national unity unless basic principles of human rights and the rule of law are acknowledged and respected nationwide.
Historically, such attempts to appease those holding extreme regressive views and to look for middle ground have always been detrimental to progress towards a more equal and just society.
In the 1960s, civil rights movement leader Dr Martin Luther King described the white moderate – not the white supremacist – as the “great stumbling block” for black progress “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”, who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” who “lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises” black people to wait for a “more convenient season”.
Biden, like the white moderates of Dr King’s time, is standing in the way of progress with his politics of conciliation of a political force which is wreaking havoc on our democratic system, dismantling mercilessly civil rights and liberties, and trampling over justice and basic human decency.
Today, the Trumpian Republican Party is a purveyor of white supremacist policies aimed at erasing ethnic, racial and religious minorities from civic life and from society and considers those who engage in racialised terroristic violence “very fine people“. Any attempt to compromise with it will only encourage white nationalism further.
As the party overwhelmingly supports the separation of children from their parents and their detention in abhorrent conditions, where they face abuse and illness, there can be no reasonable avenue for dialogue with its members.
As Republicans under Trump are trying to eviscerate voting rights and political representation for people who are not white, and are taking steps to punish women having miscarriages as murderers, and seeking life imprisonment or even the death penalty for women exercising their reproductive freedoms, there can be no middle ground or room for compromise.
As the Trump administration continues to deny global warming and seek protection for polluting coal companies in the face of rapidly melting glaciers and impending environmental devastation, it is unacceptable to seek the middle of the road with its policies.
Moreover, Trump mires himself in corruption, uses his department of justice to flaunt his disregard for the rule of law, shields himself and his minions from accountability and welcomes foreign interference in the next election, as the Republican-controlled Senate blocks any measures to promote election security. While this occurs, there can be no talk of “future cooperation” with Republicans or return to an imagined past civility.
In this current environment, Democrats should not only fret about whether they can defeat Trump, but also whether they will get a chance to face him in a just, democratic election in 2020. If they focus their energy on reaching a compromise with the cult of Trump instead of strongly and unapologetically defying white supremacy, the nation will not survive Trump at all.
Before we ask whether all Americans can live together in peace, we must elevate justice as a nonpartisan issue and seek to reform the current political system which thrives on corruption and division. We must push forward a bold transformation of our system of governance, the elimination of financial influence in politics, the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and the retooling of a now partisan Supreme Court.
A restructuring if not an elimination of the Senate and the Electoral College would guard against the amplification of anti-democratic principles and the preservation of white-male minority rule that is inherent in the constitution. In addition, the US must come to terms with its history of slavery, genocide and racism and make amends.
Only bold stances and audacious policies will allow the US to free itself from extremist assaults on government and society. Biden’s attempt to coddle those extremists will not make the nation’s problems go away.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.