For generations, the United States has served as inspiration to democratic movements and nations around the world. That our elections led to a peaceful transfer of power is something that they, along with many Americans, long took for granted.
For the first time in more than two centuries, that transfer of power was not peaceful in 2021. On Wednesday, President Biden took the oath of office on the very spot where a violent mob, motivated by lies, attempted to prevent the democratic transfer of power just two weeks before.
That horrifying moment capped the tenure of the 45th president, a time when we were repeatedly confronted with how fragile that democracy is and how delicate the ties that bind us are. Biden’s somewhat predictable words in his inaugural address Wednesday — assuring us of his commitment to democratic values, the Constitution, and to earning the public’s trust — resonated more deeply than usual with a people left uneasy after the Capitol attack and broken down by the despair of facing a deadly pandemic without moral leadership from the White House. At a time of waning faith that our institutions and norms alone can hold up our democracy, our gratitude waxes for the people who have stewarded it in the past, and for those who must shepherd it in the future. Biden and Vice President Harris represent bookends to the Trump reign — both torchbearers of that honorable past and trailblazers who want us to believe a better, more inclusive America is around the corner.
Biden, a man who shows an uncharacteristic amount of vulnerability for a politician, seemed the perfect fit for a country newly attuned to its own fragility. The president’s personal life has been marked by tragedy, and he twice failed in bids for the presidency. America has never seemed more in need of the kind of resilience the president has shown in his own life to overcome the disasters we face: a pandemic that has cost the country more than 400,000 lives, an economic catastrophe that has exacerbated stark inequities, an attack on free elections that culminated in an act of white supremacist violence, the enduring legacy of slavery in our criminal justice system, damaged American credibility on the world stage, and the climate crisis.
When Harris accepted the oath of office from the nation’s first woman of color to sit on the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the new vice president shattered a centuries-long tradition, an anachronism of mostly monochromatic men serving the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency. Not only is she the nation’s first woman, Black person, and person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president, but as a former state attorney general and formidable senator, she has verve and vitality as a leader, and might, like Barack Obama, inspire more Americans to take up public service at a time when so much needs mending.
And who can blame Joe Biden for trying to unite the country amid this disrepair — even if a fractured America can’t even agree on whether he was elected fair and square? (For the record: He was.) Living through a pandemic that has isolated us from one another, we may find that the notion of “coming together” feels awfully nice, even if it’s more elusive than ever. Unity is an ideal we strive for around our dinner tables and in our communities — an end to infighting and division among siblings and neighbors, a sense of common purpose to give bigger meaning to our private struggles. Why not for the nation?
But unity and reconciliation of a divided people does not come because a leader declares it from a pulpit, even if that pulpit is that of the newly minted president of the United States. That’s why, to fulfill his inaugural promise, Biden will have to do more than just appeal — as Lincoln did in 1861 before the Civil War broke out, and the new president did Wednesday — to the better angels of our nature.
Biden acknowledged that we cannot expect to live in a democracy without disagreement. But we cannot respectfully disagree in a way that preserves unity unless we operate from a common set of facts. A precondition of reconciliation in South Africa after apartheid ripped the nation apart, wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his memoir, was for perpetrators and survivors of violence to mutually acknowledge the truth of past horrors, so that the nation could be reshaped for the future.
To unify the nation, Joe Biden will first have to find a way to dispel the lies alluded to in his address — to uphold the truth. And that’s wherein the true power of his inauguration lies. His administration has the chance not only to speak the unadulterated truth from the White House, but also to bring people around to acknowledge the truths that are holding the nation back — its sins of the past, and the basic facts that must shape the future. There can be no denying the reality of human-caused climate change or the dangers of a deadly pandemic, no whitewashing of the legacy of slavery and racism that has divided our nation, and no lying about the results of free and fair elections. Not all truths that will shape the fate of the nation are self-evident, but some truths, once established, must be nonnegotiable in public life.
Biden’s pledge and urgent plea to uphold the telling of truth make for a promising start. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured,” he said. He made clear that the broader project is one that relies on all of us.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,” the 2017 national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, said from the podium at the Capitol in her thunderous poem. Hers may have been the truest words spoken on Inauguration Day. How we reckon with that terror, and our commitment to tell the truth about it, may well define the nation that emerges from it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.