We may have witnessed our first televised insurrection this month, but this is not the first time our democracy has been tested.

When European governments were collapsing into fascism, Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied an economically devastated country by telling the people that they would come through the Great Depression if they could overcome fear.

Standing in the exact same spot 88 years later, President Joe Biden told a battered nation that it could overcome its cascade of interrelated crises if the people could overcome political division.

Roosevelt may have had the easier job.

Biden comes to office facing a deadly pandemic, a stalled economy, a long-delayed reckoning for racial justice, a global climate emergency and the rise of anti-democratic violence. Any of these issues could be the new administration’s top priority, and none of them can wait long for his attention.

But action will be stymied if a political culture that demonizes difference and punishes compromise continues to set the national agenda, egged on by media platforms that profit from outrage.

Biden says we can take on all the problems at once if we stand together, even as he admits that he understands that talking about unity in a country so divided sounds like a “foolish fantasy.”

But he also knows that the alternative to unity is an “uncivil war” that threatens the whole idea of democratic self-governance. In his extraordinary address Wednesday, the new president made a pitch for tolerance, humility and a commitment to truth as essential weapons in the fight against our many challenges.

Of these, the one Biden returned to the most was the destructive effect of the war on truth.

The U.S. Capitol had been attacked just two weeks prior by armed insurrectionists who believed the lie that Biden had lost the election and had been put into power by a massive conspiracy.

That lie was amplified by members of Congress, including some who were present for Biden’s inauguration. Some of them had shamelessly cast doubt on the integrity of the same elections that had put them into office.

“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden said. “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

Biden did not promise to do away with disagreements. Democracies settle differences with elections and legislative votes. There are always going to be winners and losers.

But the system can’t survive if we treat every opponent as an enemy and every dispute as a fight to the death. Biden said the invention and distribution of false “facts” turn politics into a “raging fire that destroys everything in its path.”

We will soon find out whether Biden’s commitment to civility will affect the government’s ability to function in the face of so many threats.

We know now only that he is the president chosen by a majority of the people. That doesn’t require all Americans agree with him, but we all should be willing to give him a chance to try, no matter who we supported in November.

The insurrection was defeated. Democracy has survived, and that’s worth celebrating. But the test isn’t over. It’s just beginning.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.