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When looking in the mirror, the United States generally does not see a land of process and procedure. He sees what he wanted to see from the start: a place of action, results and volume. The bold, vivid stories that Americans seek out and have used to build their nation don’t always play well with repetition and routine.
Then comes a day like Wednesday. Two weeks after the peaceful handover of power was so nearly turned upside down, the ritual took center stage. And it turned out, after four years of a loud and glowing presidency, that there can be solace – inspiration, even – in carrying out a process and procedure that sends a resounding message to idealists and discontented alike: the United States continues. The republic is still standing.
At no time in the past 150 years, perhaps, has such an anticipated and routine transition process – a time that Ronald Reagan, while experiencing it, has called both “mundane” and “nothing less. than a miracle ”- no longer seemed necessary. Or, for that matter, more tenuous.
“We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed, ”said freshly minted President Joe Biden in his inaugural address.
More than 400,000 Americans have died in a pandemic that devastated the economy. We are two weeks away from an insurgency aimed at overthrowing an election. An incumbent president has vigorously shredded the standards of his office, alienating millions and troubling millions more even as he delighted his most ardent supporters.
And so, a meticulously scripted moment of pomp – even though it took place against the turbulent backdrop of a confined landscape and thousands of armed servicemen guarding against chaos – once again became a national glue.
“Have we become too jaded, too accustomed to the ritual of passing the torch of democracy to realize what blessing, what privilege it is to attend this moment? I believe not. ”Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Said as she opened the inaugural ceremony.
We have learned from the American Playbook that important transitional moments – “inflection points,” as it has become fashionable to call them – tend to favor the strong. It ignores the mechanics, which is natural: as long as the car is running and gets you there, you probably don’t think much about what’s under the hood.
It’s an incomplete view, however.
“America is a process. It’s not a finished product, ”says Susan Schulten, a professor at the University of Denver specializing in American history in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was a process personified on Wednesday when the American leaders who did their jobs and returned home – from Dan Quayle to Barack Obama to Mike Pence – walked down the steps and sat down to watch. It was a process embodied when the same oath taken by the Constitution to George Washington 231 years ago was taken by Biden.
This process was expressed in music when Lady Gaga sang the national anthem. It was also a process when Jennifer Lopez sang “This Land Is Your Land,” an American ode written by Woody Guthrie, a man who painted these words on his guitar: “This machine is killing fascists.
It was part of the process and the procedure, and something incredibly fresh and new as well, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman took the microphone as the youngest poet to ever read at an inaugural ceremony. She even winked at it in her poem “The Hill We Go Up”: “Somehow,” Gorman said, “we stood up and witnessed a nation that is not broken but simply incomplete ”.
The inauguration process had its contradictions of course, given that two weeks ago many Americans questioned whether this would even take place – and if it did, whether it would be moved, kidnapped and sterilized in the interest of preventing insurgency. .
There was the contradiction of holding a ceremony on the renewal of democracy in a building built with slaves. There was the contradiction of calling this liberty ceremony in a locked-down part of the nation’s capital, with thousands of heavily armed Americans in uniform guarding the saboteur perimeter.
There was the contradiction that, due to both security concerns and the coronavirus, the multitudes of Americans who normally show up to see a new president take office were not allowed near the location.
“I wonder how this is going to affect the way Americans view this inauguration,” said Thurston Clarke, author of “Ask Not,” a book that unveiled John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. “I think that it diminishes it. “
And there was, above all, the contradiction of the voluntary absence of Donald Trump, which reversed a fundamental step in the process of transfer of power by excluding the ceding company from the equation.
For a few hours on Wednesday morning after his early exit from the White House and the capital, Trump’s absence created a giddy (and not necessarily in a good way) feeling of something that was becoming something else. As he remained president until noon and there was no power vacuum, the sense of vulnerability that accompanies any political in-between subsided – heightened, no doubt, by the vulnerability to which Washington was really faced with the aftermath of the Capitol uprising.
“There is usually a sense of closure there,” says Robert J. Thompson, director of the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “This time around, any sense of closure, any sense that this story at one point has a sense of completion has been shattered into a million little pieces.”
In his speech, Biden kept talking about “American history,” and rightly so: the United States is united by the stories it tells. But the stories that become national myths do not come out of nowhere. They merge. They grow. They marinate. And they do it gradually, until the little one becomes the epic.
This is where the process, procedure and ritual come in. Together they can get bogged down in the most exciting ventures. But together, too, they can foster continuity and stability. Many progressives who say change is late, and want it fast, may not like it. The MAGA base, it has become clear, does not endorse such a notion either.
But the tumult of the past four years, much of which has escalated through the overthrow of norms and processes, suggests that incrementalism has its place in American society as well. And that for every deafening moment that moves the nation forward, there are countless procedural ones that move it forward.
“It shows how important institutions are,” says Schulten.
The fabric of the American republic has been torn, stretched, bloodied, stretched like seaside tug-of-war by rulers and partisans. What lies ahead is uncertain, as always – and will be unpleasant for many and heartwarming for many others.
But Wednesday, for a moment, all American carnage was elsewhere. For a moment, no matter what kind of American you are, no matter how upset you are and no matter what your vote, this land was unmistakably your land.
For an interlude on a sunny January 2021 day, in the midst of what Biden called “this winter of peril and great opportunity,” the state of the union – if not strong, to be precise – was intact. The republic, for the moment, was still standing.
Ted Anthony, Associated Press director of digital innovation, has written about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted