Elizabeth II’s speech to the United Kingdom was moving, even for those of us who are lifelong small-r republicans. In some respects, her model cannot be copied in the United States. She is a monarch, and we had some disagreements about that matter in 1776. She is a living link to the most harrowing experience in living memory, the Second World War. And, at 92, she has accumulated a lifetime’s reservoir of trust and goodwill.
But the queen’s address does have lessons for us Yanks, and particularly for Joe Biden. Part of what made the queen’s speech affecting was its theme of unity. The queen didn’t speak to the people so much as for the people. She thanked, first of all, the health-care workers and other essential employees who “selflessly continue their day-to-day duties outside the home in support of us all.” Next, she extended her thoughts to those remaining in their homes and caring for loved ones: “Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it.”
In a nod to Winston Churchill’s iconic “finest hour” speech, she offered a tribute to the nation’s character:
I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterize this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.
We’ve heard that, at stressful times, people want a strong leader, and that this accounts for the rally-around-the-flag effect so evident in opinion polls worldwide. Even Donald Trump benefited, at least a little, from this reaction. But that isn’t the whole story.
Trying times also bring out people’s altruism and longing for unity. In my own circle, among friends, relatives, and the neighborhood Listserv, offers of help, volunteering, and contributions have overflowed. Neighbors volunteer to shop for elderly residents. Teenagers offer to help younger kids with homework via Zoom. One person posted that she cannot cut her lawn because she hurt her foot. Another responded immediately, “I would be elated to mow your lawn since that’s what I do for work and I’ve got nothing better to do.” Companies large and small have stepped up to donate supplies to health-care workers, churches and others are caring for children whose parents are essential workers. Blood-collection centers are crowded with donors. The list is nearly endless.
We’ve focused so much in recent years on the primitive side of our natures — the part that responds to tribalism and hatred of out groups. But while those traits are real enough, we didn’t achieve great civilizations by suspicion alone. Cooperation and, in Queen Elizabeth’s phrase, ”fellow feeling” are also part of our nature. Without cooperation, we’d still be wandering the savannah in groups of 15 or 20 with spears in one hand and babies on our backs. Humans are cooperative creatures — even, at times, selfless ones. In wartime, men throw themselves on grenades to save others. In this time of plague, doctors and nurses willingly put their own lives at risk to save people they don’t even know.
Americans are already behaving in cooperative and unifying ways. What they lack is a voice. President Trump is utterly incapable of sounding those notes. When he attempts it, as, for example, when an aide draws up some uplifting rhetoric, he seems to be sounding out the words as if reading another language. He is far more comfortable searching out enemies — the media, his predecessor, the “deep state,” under-appreciative governors, General Motors, and so forth.
Joe Biden, by contrast, is well suited to the unifier role. His strength is a sympathetic understanding of others’ pain. His instincts are toward conciliation and cooperation, to the point that Democratic partisans were sometimes dismayed when, earlier in this cycle, he reminisced fondly about “getting things done” with Republicans.
Just now, in the midst of the crisis, Biden lacks an opportunity to voice a unifying message. But that time will come soon. He should seize it. It comes naturally to him. It would remind us of our better angels, and the country is yearning for it.
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