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Amid asymmetric appeals for unity, we must hold Republicans accountable

<h5>The White House in Washington, D.C.</h5>
<h6>Matt Wade / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
The White House in Washington, D.C.
Matt Wade / Wikimedia Commons

After a historic victory, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden called for unity, as Biden inaugurated “a time to heal.”

Later in his acceptance speech, Biden implored Americans to come together: “[There’s a] refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another. It’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.”

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But that statement reveals the central problem poisoning our politics right now: reconciliation requires both sides to make that choice. And we can only come together if we come to a shared understanding of truth and accountability.

Biden’s speech resonated because many of us are tired of division, exhausted by government gridlock, and longing for more empathy in politics. But unity requires reciprocity; otherwise, it’s just appeasement. And so far, Republicans have not returned that grace. Instead, they’ve only sought to further divide the country, taking aim at the very basis of our democracy: voting.

Never mind that there is no evidence of voter fraud and every case Trump’s lawyers have attempted to argue in court has failed. What matters to them isn’t the truth, but chipping away at Biden’s legitimacy.

Trump’s tactic has the potential to harm people’s confidence in our democracy. Faith in democracy comes not just from the laws, which protect a Biden win, but the norms we rely on. Concession speeches, for example, are a customary way for losing candidates to encourage their supporters to accept defeat and recognize the legitimacy of their opponents’ win.

By not giving such a speech, Trump signals to his voters that they shouldn’t accept the result either, whether it is upheld by law or not. We all expect a peaceful transfer of power, but like so many others, that tradition assumes a certain level of character in our elected leaders. The system falters when people disregard those norms. The only way to counteract those harms is to hold people accountable for their lies.

We must be concerned when politicians lie about the electoral process because American democracy is young and remains fragile. The nation had no real claim to democracy until at least the 1960s, and still millions of Americans are denied their right to vote today, whether due to incarceration or other means of voter suppression. A stable and fair democracy is neither inevitable nor guaranteed.

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As John Lewis said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” And the more Republicans tear at those shallow roots, the weaker our system becomes. We cannot come together as a country when an entire political party refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the other, and by extension, of the majority of voters.

The mutual respect required for reconciliation is just that: mutual. Biden showed respect for Trump voters in his victory speech. Republicans have shown no such respect for Democratic voters. Claiming that people voted illegally is not respectful. Refusing to concede an election is not respectful. Gesturing broadly at mysterious corruption in majority-Black cities is not respectful. Asserting that upstanding citizens duly elected Republican candidates while Democrats’ victories can only be explained by voters knowingly committing fraud or being unknowingly manipulated by politicians is not respectful.

Doing all of those things while taking no action on urgent issues, such as protecting people from the worsening pandemic spiking nationwide, is not respectful.

No, this rhetoric and these actions are dismissive, condescending, and offensive. They don’t evince high-minded, civic-oriented, unifying discourse — they demonstrate not only total disregard for the democratic institutions and ideals we hold dearest, but contempt for the American people.

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Typically, losing leads to introspection. Certainly losing repeatedly ought to. Republicans have lost the popular vote in all but one of the last eight elections. Trump never had majority support. And now Trump has suffered defeat like no other president in history: he was voted out after one term, an impeachment, and two losses of the popular vote. But instead of asking themselves why and reevaluating their strategy, Republicans are doubling down and insisting that it did not happen.

How do we unify when we don’t subscribe to the same reality? How do we come together when the majority of the country, including those who have borne the brunt of this destructive administration, can be dismissed out of hand?

The reaction to the election also foretells the future of the Republican Party: their dishonesty and contempt will outlast Trump. If we are to enter a new era of constructive governance, we’ll have to leave behind the tendencies that facilitated Trump’s rise. One such factor was the extent to which Republicans enabled Trump’s worst impulses.

Many of those Republicans remain in power, perpetuating the same dangerous views. On Fox News, Lindsey Graham admitted, “If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we’re going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.” It’s a simple calculus for him: make it easier to vote, and Republicans lose. But the answer is not to try to appeal to this majority, but to suppress the vote. That appears to be Republicans’ path forward: division, not unity.

At Princeton, we value civic engagement across ideological divides. Take Vote100. The group’s mission is to inform and encourage students to engage in the civic process. It is nonpartisan, because increasing voter access is a good in itself.

Whig-Clio offers a space for students of all political leanings to come together and discuss important issues. These groups and others seek to increase civic engagement across political divides. This is the path forward: not papering over our differences, but engaging with them in order to move past this ugly period.

We cannot just turn the page on Trump. We have to reckon with what Trump and his Republican enablers did over the last four years. Hundreds of thousands of people died this year who didn’t have to. Many more survived the coronavirus, but will be affected in lasting ways we can’t even foresee.

Heinous immigration policies, which took an already-inhumane system to a new level of evil, orphaned hundreds of children. Police, who face no accountability for wanton use of force, continue to kill and harass Black Americans. Worse, Trump’s Justice Department encouraged the violent suppression of people’s right to free speech.

The list goes on. Those harms won’t disappear on Jan. 20 when President Biden is sworn in. We cannot pretend that they will.

Unifying cannot mean forgetting about those wounds, and it cannot mean asking the people who are most harmed to continue conceding their humanity in the name of hollow reconciliation. It cannot mean asking more of the same people who have always had to sacrifice to make this country feel better about itself.

No more false equivalences or bothsidesism. Unifying must mean accountability. We have to come together, but we must unify around a new vision. Biden and Harris are ready. Is the country?

Julia Chaffers is a junior History concentrator from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She can be reached at chaffers@princeton.edu.

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