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Obama: This is what 72 million votes for Trump says to me
02:07 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The 2020 presidential election was a referendum on a democracy made vulnerable by systemic racism, economic inequality and structural violence. It also reflected widespread fear about the erosion of longstanding norms and political processes within and beyond Washington. The controversy over the election results – the consequence of conservative media, conspiracy theories and a President who gleefully fanned the flames of already existing racial and political divides – is a testament to the enormity of the challenges facing the nation. While all democratic change comes through compromise, the structural transformations needed at this hinge point in history require a far-reaching vision and audacious freedom dreams. Our times demand nothing less.

Peniel Joseph

The dangerous behavior of President Donald Trump and many in his White House during this transition of power risks stirring up millions of Americans who apparently doubt the veracity of the election and the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have been denied the intelligence briefings and other courtesies usually given to incoming administrations. Perhaps most importantly, this behavior threatens the health and public safety of the nation amid a pandemic by preventing a smooth and orderly transition of power to a new administration.

These bizarre circumstances have been amplified by premature calls for healing and reconciliation on the cheap.

Suggestions from the nation’s self-styled political centrists that Biden-Harris should center the political grievances of Trump voters over the hopes and dreams of the multiracial coalition, led by Black women, that got them elected once again privileges the feelings of White conservative voters at the expense of an anti-racist majority.

Acknowledging that Trump voters enthusiastically supported a racist President for reelection is not “cancel culture” or some kind of witch hunt led by the woke. Americans are not just living in a nation divided into red and blue – we are existing in two separate realities. Unity isn’t placating the feelings on the “other side.” Recognizing that the over 73 million Americans who voted for Trump seem committed to a presidency based on racial division and a party that revels in voter suppression is the first step toward achieving any kind of national unity under a Biden-Harris administration.

Fortunately, although our country is undergoing perhaps its most unusual presidential transition in history, America has also been in places like these before. The most transformative presidential administrations have paired soaring idealism with strategic pragmatism to produce a combination deft enough to pass consequential legislation while remaining tethered to core political values.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s introduction in 1941 of “Four Freedoms” – of speech, religion, from hunger and fear – steeled the nation in a time of depression and global war against fascism. Black soldiers and civilians waged a “Double V” campaign during the Second World War that focused on defeating Jim Crow laws domestically while fighting overseas for democracy. That generation’s political and military victories helped pave the way for America’s global recognition as liberty’s surest guardian around the world.

Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society attempted to extend and expand the opportunities forged during the New Deal to include African Americans left out of these reforms – and shut out of full citizenship. The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in public education and employment and successfully included women as a protected class against gender bias, while the 1965 Voting Rights Act offered the most far-reaching legislation to protect voting rights in American history. Johnson’s finest moment as President came on March 15, 1965, in the aftermath of bloody assaults by Alabama State Troopers on peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. One of the victims included the late John Lewis, the future Georgia congressman who was almost beaten to death on Bloody Sunday, March 7.

Before a joint congressional address and a national television audience, President Johnson announced his support for sweeping voting rights legislation and presented a unifying vision to put racial justice at the center of efforts to strengthen American democracy. The President noted how, during extraordinary times, “history and fate” converge to produce transformative change. He placed Selma in a pantheon of revolutionary and quintessentially American stretching back to Revolutionary War era battles in Concord and Lexington, and Civil War’s bloody battle of Appomattox that helped liberate the nation from racial slavery.

Johnson also began his speech by indicting the images of Selma as a stain on the national image for an audience of Americans still divided on the proper scope, breadth and depth of racial progress. Less than two years after JFK’s assassination, the beginning of the War on Poverty, and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended legal segregation, many thought that voting rights legislation (which Johnson supported and grassroots activists made possible) meant that the pace of change was happening too soon. Johnson, to his credit, saw things differently. The President amplified the political mobilizing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the voting rights organizing of Black women and men at the ground level.

Civil rights struggles do more than represent Johnson’s most important legislative legacy; they reflect the power of the presidential bully pulpit to build and develop consensus around big ideas. The Great Society’s ambitious efforts to end poverty, promote racial integration, Black citizenship and dignity represent one of the most important efforts to promote racial and political reconciliation in American history. Johnson created a series of federal programs designed to combat poverty, enhance early childhood education and help the poor take control of their own destiny through legislation negotiated with a Congress that remained skeptical of the President’s desire to surpass FDR’s New Deal.

Of course, not all of Johnson’s legislative achievements proved successful, in part because of the Vietnam War’s increasing stranglehold on the President’s attention and public resources, but also because of longstanding racial wounds that Americans (including at times Johnson) refused to acknowledge. Johnson caught fire from conservatives who claimed the Great Society coddled the poor and led to race riots and from progressives who asserted that his lofty words were not matched by grand enough deeds. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went from LBJ ally to staunch critic as he correctly interpreted declining Great Society resources being diverted toward the Vietnam War.

President-elect Biden faces an even more divided political landscape than Johnson, but not by much. We overestimate, retrospectively, the appetite Americans had for the enormous political, legal and legislative changes that accompanied the civil rights era’s heroic period. The nation required bold leadership and responded best when called toward a vision that understood civil rights struggles as part of our larger civic, national, and global identity.

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    We need such a vision now more than ever. Johnson drew a line in the sand between the segregationists who sought to deny Black voting rights and our larger American family. This same demarcation must be drawn now. Doing so is not meant to stoke division but outline the common ground that allows us to forge an identity and community rooted in the resounding faith that America is a place where all things are possible.

    For President-elect Biden, the first step requires acknowledging the distance between who we are and hope to be. Biden’s unifying message should be based on a political vision crafted by the coalition that helped him achieve his victory. The President should offer an open hand so long as his political opponents reach out and unfold the closed fist that has characterized perhaps the meanest season in American history.