From the director: The president-elect and the ‘New Secessionists’

From the director: The president-elect and the ‘New Secessionists’

Uniting a pro-reality supermajority

Now that the Electoral College has cast its votes, President-elect Biden faces a new secession crisis. 

Unlike the one faced by Abraham Lincoln during his transition in 1860 and 1861, this one will not lead to civil war. But Joe Biden still must address it—first by uniting the supermajority of Americans who are committed to a united state of reality.

Lincoln’s crisis featured the secession of seven states. In December 1860, six weeks after Lincoln’s victory, South Carolina became the first state to secede. Over the next two months, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas would follow suit. The secessionists feared Lincoln would immediately and directly dismantle the slave economy. Newspapers—operating at warp speed, thanks to the day’s breakthrough communications technology of the telegraph—helped fuel an alternative reality.

Biden’s crisis is not about states, but about state of mind. About two-thirds of the country believe that Biden won the election, fair and square. But another one-third does not. One poll identified about 36 percent of voters believe Biden’s victory was due to fraud—or 77 percent of the 47 percent who voted for his opponent. An equal number are “angry at the idea that Biden won.” In a different poll, 73 percent of respondents said Biden won, with less than one-third of voters thinking the election was “rigged.”

Biden’s crisis is not about states, but about state of mind.

The failed Supreme Court pleading, supported by 19 state attorneys general and 126 members of Congress, is the clearest demonstration that today’s secessionists are withdrawing from truth. The suit denied the reality of Republican officials in battleground states who have certified the election. It ignores the Republican-appointed judges and the nation’s attorney general, who have rejected fraud and election-rigging charges for lack of evidence. It ignores reliably conservative news outlets such as FOX News and the Wall Street Journal, and personalities as Tucker CarlsonKarl Rove, Erick Erickson, and Andy McCarthy, who have warned that overturning the votes of millions of Americans may forever undermine our elections.

The New Secessionists are not necessarily bigots or racists. As a whole, they are not yet violent. But threats of violence against election officials—from Michigan to Georgia, Pennsylvania to Arizona—are rising. 

The New Secessionists’ undoing goes deeper than the election. As Jonathan RauchDavid Brooks, and Peter Wehner have pointed out, the New Secessionists reject the institutions responsible for policing facts: our government and courts, our media, academia, and science. To be sure, these imperfect institutions are subject to human error. But the New Secessionists ignore our institutions’ most redeeming features: openness to review, to reform, and to reality itself.

Threats of violence against election officials are rising. 

The secessionists are beginning to create a new imagined nation within our nation. The political scientist, Benedict Anderson, famously defined a nation as “an imagined community.” Anderson showed how the spread of newspapers in the late 1700s helped to forge national identities—often in colonies that then seceded from their mother nations. The New Secessionists are elevating media platforms like Newsmax, OAN, the Epoch Times, and Parler to forge an imagination-fueled society. 

How should Biden react? Lincoln provides an example. In February 1861, the president-elect’s train sped a mile a minute from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., but he did not choose a direct path. As historian Ted Widmer describes it in Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, his route zig-zagged through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania, up and across New York, down the Hudson River to New York City and then to New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Maryland—symbolically trying to unite a disparate collection of states and peoples. His inaugural address pleaded to the South for peace and reconciliation, arguing that we must be friends, not enemies.

President-elect Biden already has embraced Lincoln’s model. Biden has said repeatedly: “I’ll be a president for all Americans. Not just the ones who vote for me.” 

His first priority should be to unite the two-thirds of the nation who still live in the current reality. More than 51 percent of voters, or about 81 million Americans, chose Biden. Another roughly 20 million did not vote for Biden but accept that he won. Serving those 100 million voters must be Biden’s first tour of duty. 

How to unite reality-based America? Biden’s base is made up of center-Left voters. His challenge will be how to maintain the civic loyalty—and the patriotism—of both Bernie Sanders Democrats and Doug Ducey Republicans. Sanders and his followers want systemic change. Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, accepted Biden’s victory but voted against him because he feared Sanders-style socialism. 

Fortunately, each of the nation’s other crises present opportunities for uniting reality-based supermajorities. The coronavirus pandemic is most obvious. In an October poll, three-quarters of Americans support common-sense actions to mitigate the further spread of Covid-19, to treat the ill, and to vaccinate the healthy. 

Economic revitalization is step two. While it is certainly the case that Democratic socialists and reality-based Republicans have different economic priorities, there is strong political support for at least one more large emergency package, and perhaps for another one to follow. The second bill will likely focus on infrastructure investments and perhaps also support industries that may take time to recover: airlines, hotels, restaurants, etc.

Biden also prioritized racial justice and climate change during his campaign. These are higher priorities for his supporters than they are for Republicans. Still, he can still find allies across the aisle dedicated to ending discrimination and to lowering emissions and producing clean energy.

The nation’s other crises present opportunities for uniting reality-based supermajorities.

As important, Biden already has applauded Democratic, Republican, and Independent election officials and politicians who courageously secured fair elections in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The Republican officials may not want a new Democratic president’s endorsement. But Biden must at least hear their hopes and fears. 

What about the one-third of the country who are the New Secessionists? Lincoln treated secessionists in his era as friends not enemies. President-elect Biden cannot accept their reality, nor should he. But if they meaningfully want to engage on further strengthening our election systems, the president-elect should engage. If they want to address bias in the media, universities, and other reality-based institutions, he should be open to those discussions. That said, review and action must be tethered to a reality that can be fully acknowledged and accepted by the other two-thirds of the nation. That must be nonnegotiable.