Our politics need a culture of atonement
Culturally informed by Roman Catholicism's expectation that regret must prompt an apology as well as penance, Western European tradition calls for a rhetorical journey by politicians who claim to have changed course. A chastened leader should explain why and how he came to his previous belief, explain the circumstances that changed his mind and make the case for his new, different policy. He must expend political capital in order to get changes enacted.
Charles de Gaulle, who wanted France to retain control of Algeria, had observed the popularity and ferocity of the Algerian independence movement during his frequent visits to Algiers. In 1960, the French president admitted that he'd long been mistaken. "The Algerians will have the free choice of their destiny," he informed a nation stunned by his dramatic reversal. Speaking of political capital, some military officers felt so betrayed they tried to assassinate him. But he brought the Algerian crisis in for a soft landing and regained support.
A rare American example occurred in 1987. Then-President Ronald Reagan first denied negotiating with Iranian hostage takers. Then he apologized to the public for Iran-Contra. Taking "full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration," Reagan said, he then admitted to misleading the public. "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages," he said. "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." Reagan's admission was a low point for his presidency but bolstered his reputation in the long run.
Atonement doesn't play a frequent role in American politics.
Yet it works. After former President John F. Kennedy accepted responsibility for the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs -- he could have schluffed the fiasco off on Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration planned it -- his popularity soared.
But it might not have worked for Ike. A study undertaken in 2017 in nine nations including the U.S. found that, especially in the U.S., conservatives are less willing than liberals to apologize, and that they're less likely to accept an apology.
Conservatives mocked former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for "apology tours" during which they expressed regret over America's role in the slave trade and Middle East interventionism, respectively. Being Republican means never having to say you're sorry.
The fertile soil for a culture of atonement occurs on the left.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden needs to unify the Democratic Party. He has the center-left Hillary Clinton wing in the bag. He leads in the polls but has an enthusiasm gap in progressives who supported Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Neither the Black Lives Matter movement nor progressives have forgiven the former vice president for supporting the police-group-written 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration. They're angry that he voted for war against Iraq. A fulsome apology followed by substantial atonement -- the way Sanders now says he shouldn't have voted for the war against Afghanistan -- could help Biden with activists.
So far, so tepid.