Dignity And Efficiency On Inauguration Day

Yesterday showed that Biden understands the "dignified" part of politics.

Walter Bagehot, in The English Constitution, argued that the success of the British political system rested in the division between the dignified and efficient parts of the government. While Parliament got the actual work of governing done, the monarchy embodied the equally important “dignified” or symbolic elements. We don’t have to get into an analysis of British politics to grant Bagehot’s point, that politics involves much more than just policy.

Nothing illustrates that point more than yesterday’s inauguration and the Celebrating America event in the evening. Biden got down to work right away, signing executive orders addressing COVID-19, the environment, and other critical topics. But at this critical moment in American history, when a polarized, stunned, and frightened country faces an uncertain history, signing paperwork was not enough spectacle. We needed a moment when we conjured up a vision of the United States we want to have. How much of that vision we have now, and how much is yet to be achieved, are both important questions to address.

Yesterday definitely delivered a vision in a very meaningful and occasionally powerful way. Past Inauguration Days had the inaugural ceremony itself and follow-on activities, including trips to symbolically important places like Arlington Cemetery, and outdoor concerts. These events give the incoming president the opportunity to frame what will be distinct, during his inaugural speech, the choice of other speakers, including poets like Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman. These activities also ground the new administration in what will remain the same, such as the reverence for fallen soldiers, the oaths repeated now for centuries, or the significance of poetry itself as a high form of national discourse.

As good as these moments were, Biden and his aides landed a powerful symbolic punch at the end of the day. Normally, Inauguration Day ends with the inaugural balls, activities that excluded average Americans. This year, the day ended with the Celebrating America concert. Not only were all Americans invited, but it also featured average Americans — health care professionals, essential workers, and volunteers most conspicuously, but also lots and lots of ordinary people. It echoed many of the same inclusive, Everyman themes as the online Democratic National Convention a few months ago. It also continued something that started early in the day, an effort to reclaim patriotism (and its most potent symbol, the American flag) as something belonging to all Americans, not just Republicans, who have weaponized an exclusive faux patriotism for decades.

Celebrating America also set up the pivot needed from a dark time into a challenging but more hopeful sequel. Songs of renewal, starting with Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” one of his many quasi-hymns, formed the playlist. Between songs, Americans spoke about how they looked forward to better days ahead. And at the end, the lights memorializing the 400,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 pointed to the fireworks that symbolized, in the most unsubtle fashion imaginable, a better future.

Someone on the Biden team understands the role that the dignified part of politics plays, to remind, reassure, mobilize, and inspire. They not only “send a message,” but pull us together in our common identity and aspiration. As politicians and civil servants get down to business (the efficient part of politics), we will need more of these dignified moments, perhaps not as large and spectacular as yesterday’s, but important nonetheless for the long, tiring work ahead.

I’ll end with perhaps my favorite movie moment, a scene from Casablanca, which illustrates even better than a verbose blog post the power of the symbolic part of politics.

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Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I agree with everything you say, but a substantial number of Americans adored Trump precisely because he had no dignity–he was an oaf and a buffoon.

    It’s a longstanding tragedy in American life that grace and dignity are seen as unAmerican and churlishness is seen as authentically American.

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  2. Kingdaddy says:

    “Dignified” has a different meaning here than “decorum.” Specifically, Bagehot said that the dignified part of government was the “one to excite and preserve the reverence of the population.” You could be a churlish buffoon and still fulfill that function.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    Once again, the Founders were far from perfect, but they did pretty good. Being products of the Enlightenment, and having just declared themselves free of the King, it would have been awkward to set up a royal family and declare we owed our loyalty to him as divinely ordained. Although they made the occupants ephemeral, they could have gone for fealty to the institution of Congress or the office of the president. But they went for “We, the people” and fealty to a piece of parchment. Or rather to the concepts on that piece of parchment. Pretty good.

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  4. CSK says:

    @Kingdaddy:
    Yes, Trump certainly accomplished that for a segment of the population. He reminded, reassured, inspired, and mobilized them–to a bad end.

    He didn’t bring us together.

  5. Pylon says:

    The inauguration celebration/concert had the same feel as the virtual DNC, which I thought was an improvement over the previous versions in every way. I wonder if they used some of the same production staff.

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  6. Joe says:

    Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman

    You’re going to see a lot of this. I almost checked Ms. Angelou’s date of death against Ms. Gorman’s date of birth, but pretty sure they overlapped for a number of years. I hope these comparisons raise Ms. Gorman up and don’t weigh her down.

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  7. Kylopod says:

    You telling me we’ll no longer be having this as president?