America 2.0

Rebooting one of the world’s oldest democracies

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden fist bumps newly sworn-in Vice President Kamala Harris after she took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Biden was sworn in today as the 46th president of the United States. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden and Madam Vice President Kamala Harris. That sure feels good to say. So good, in fact, that I pushed back my weekly column by a day just so I could say it.

And here we are.

After years of error screens and powering down, America is finally rebooting. Version 2.0 begins with a literal and metaphorical Cloroxing of the White House — but eliminating the bugs won’t stop there. 

This was not your typical transition of power. In some ways, it was less of an update and more like buying a brand new computer.

President Biden urges a divided nation to ‘end this uncivil war’ in inaugural address

The most notable changes began with Biden’s inauguration speech, where he made a clear repudiation of domestic terrorism and white nationalism — a stark contrast after years of dog whistles. There were also longing calls for a prevailing truth, reminiscent of a modern President Lincoln who understands that a nation divided by lies cannot stand. Next were acknowledgments to our international allies, that we would not seek to use our power to bully, but rather to join efforts in shared causes.

Most of all, the speech was a plea for growth in adversity and unity — but a unity clarified. We don’t need everybody, just “enough of us to come together to carry all of us.” As political analyst Amy Walter put it, Biden’s speech was rooted in “realistic optimism.”

Signs of immediate changes were everywhere.

At inauguration, the first woman — and first woman of color — was sworn in as vice president. Her oath was overseen by the first Latina Supreme Court justice, while the first African American president and first lady looked on.

At the new vice president’s side stood her husband, the first second gentleman, proudly beaming at his wife’s accomplishments. Together, they not only marked a brilliant new equality in relationships, but the first interracial marriage to grace the White House.

Shortly after Harris was sworn in, Biden’s wife became the first first lady with a Ph.D. In fact, all four members of the top two power couples now have advanced degrees.

The inauguration also featured the youngest-ever Black inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, a Black female fire captain who simultaneously spoke and signed the Pledge of Allegiance, and a Latina vocalist who riffed in Spanish. This is the closest reflection of America we’ve perhaps ever seen. (Next up, Madam President.)

More signs of America 2.0 extended into appointments and policy.

Even before assuming the presidency, Biden had already established the most diverse Cabinet in America’s history, ladened with experts top to bottom. He then elevated the role of science adviser to a Cabinet-level position for the first time ever. Within hours of assuming the Oval Office, he signed 17 executive orders to address a range of topics including COVID-19, climate change, immigration and equity. Many of these directly reversed actions by his predecessor, sending a strong signal of what is to come.

Sudden shifts like this are difficult to create without a catalyst. In retrospect, the deadly attempted coup may have been the best, worst thing that could have happened to America. Without it, we might have sputtered forward, searching for the will to advocate further after an exhausting four years. Instead, faced with such intensity of violence and loss, a vast majority of us have found a renewed passion for reclaiming American democracy.

There is, however, a note of caution in such 180s.

In physics, it’s noted that when the pendulum swings back from one edge, it doesn’t stop in the middle. Instead, carried by forces unseen, it naturally swings in near-equal measure to the opposite side. Push the pendulum harder and it will go even farther, continually swinging back and forth, until enough friction forces are reached.

In politics, this back-swing must be controlled. We’ve already seen growing polarizations with each party flip over the past few decades. This time, as we propel forward, we must also strengthen the forces that will act to slow the pendulum upon reaching future heights.

America is imperfect — it always will be — and we have much work to do beyond 24 hours. Progress is never linear or as fast as we want. But we have learned the hard way to never again take our democracy for granted. We must work diligently and proactively to protect it — not for its imperfections, but for all its potential.

In the words of Gorman, “History has its eyes on us.”

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