‘End this uncivil war’: Biden calls for unity

Speaking out: Biden joins the chorus of presidents whose phrases echo through American life.

Do political speeches still make a real difference? At his inauguration, Joe Biden promised to end the division in America, but some, including his predecessor, were not listening.

“Democracy has prevailed.”

Standing on the east steps of the Capitol, where only two weeks earlier a violent mob had rampaged, Joe Biden addressed the nation warmly. After being sworn in, the 46th president called for unity, “the most elusive of all things in a democracy”.

The speech hit notes of hope and optimism, but it also encouraged Americans to reflect on the challenges they faced.

Chief among them Biden named a virus that “has taken as many lives in one year as in all of World War Two”.

There was more: “A cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can't be any more desperate or any more clear now. “

It was a speech that used the rule of three to good effect, as he ran through a litany of problems that he called on Americans to come together to solve.

He made no mention of his predecessor, whom many Americans would place high on their list of concerns.

The president did repeatedly urge respect for the truth, in what some will take as an attack on Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude to facts.

Trump controversially refused to attend the inauguration, instead, holding his own “departure ceremony”. At its end, his plane took off for Florida to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.

The outgoing president left the city to Biden, but not to the usual crowds. For health reasons, 200,000 American flags took the place of spectators.

But it was not Covid-19 that had the few attendees most worried. It was Trump’s supporters. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, Biden was protected by 25,000 members of the national guard.

Many have drawn parallels between Biden’s inauguration and Abraham Lincoln’s. After being elected on an anti-slavery ticket, Lincoln had to sneak into Washington DC at night under armed guard, for fear of assassination at the hands of supporters of slavery.

Nevertheless, Lincoln gave a speech that pleaded for peace, demanding Americans listen to “the better angels of our nature”.

Biden mentioned Lincoln directly, quoting him on signing the emancipation proclamation: “My whole soul is in this.”

It was a speech full of echoes. But if any of Biden’s lines seem likely to join the canon of presidential phrases, it is likely to be his call to “end this uncivil war”.

Probably the most memorable phrase in Donald Trump’s inaugural address was his claim that “this American carnage stops, right here, right now”.

In the face of ongoing conflict, Biden made more modest claims for the power of his own speech: “To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words.”

Do political speeches still make a real difference?

Changing address

Some say no. In an era of diminishing attention spans, the number of people who will actually watch a speech from start to finish is dwindling. People want soundbites – even memes. A politician reading a long speech from a teleprompter seems dull and inauthentic. Biden hardly spoke to the public during the election campaign, yet he defeated the much more talkative Trump.

Others say yes. The individual address still offers the best combination of thoughtfulness and sincerity, which will always strike people. Barack Obama won the presidency twice in part because of his powerful speeches. A speech is a form of intimacy between politician and public that cannot be replaced with a video or a slogan. The world is hungrier than ever for that intimacy.

You Decide

  1. Should politicians write their own speeches?
  2. Is Biden a better orator than Donald Trump?

Activities

  1. Aristotle said that a speech should establish the speaker’s trustworthiness, appeal to people’s reason, and appeal to their emotions. Read Biden’s address and pick three sentences that perform one of these functions. Explain why you think they do.
  2. Read Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address alongside Joe Biden’s. Using these as inspiration, write a short speech where you argue that people should come together in spite of a deep division.

Some People Say...

“The political sphere of life, where speech rules supreme.”

Hannah Arendt (1906 - 75), German-American political philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that democracy is intimately bound up with the idea of speech-making. The link can be traced back to ancient Athens, where every man had the right to speak in the assembly. Great orators, such as Demosthenes who, like Joe Biden, overcame a speech impediment, are often seen as the heroes of democratic politics.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is about what the unity Biden called for would look like. While the Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, some suggest that Biden will need to work with his opponents to implement any of his plans. Others, who fear that this will lead him to water down his programme, suggest that he be more confrontational, calling for unity behind his ideas, rather than compromise with his opponents.

Word Watch

Elusive
Difficult to find, catch or achieve.
Deferred
Biden is here alluding to the great African American poet Langston Hughes, whose poem “Harlem”, about segregation and racial injustice asks “What happens to a dream deferred?”.
Rule of three
A rhetorical device that uses phrases or arguments in threes to make them more memorable. In Biden’s speech, you will find frequent constructions such as “Through struggle, sacrifice, and setback…” or “History, faith and reason”.
Litany
Originally a form of prayer, based on repetition. It is often now used to mean any kind of long list.
Cavalier attitude
A dismissive or casual attitude. The idea is traced back to the cavaliers in the English civil war, who were mostly aristocrats, and thus were said to treat those beneath them without due respect.
Emancipation proclamation
This document, issued in the middle of the US Civil War, officially declared the end of slavery.
Canon
A body of important or key texts. It comes from the Greek word for standard and was first used to describe which of the gospels were accepted as central.
Soundbites
A short extract from a recorded interview or speech, chosen for being concise, succinct and memorable. A famous sound bite is Tony Blair’s “education, education, education”.

Subjects

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