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.