The idea of ‘unity’ in politics is a utopian pipedream, and not something which we should strive for.
It’s been less than a week of the new Biden administration and already we have a new political buzzword that is being used by both right and left: unity. In his inaugural address (and much of his messaging post-election), President Biden stressed his intention to unite the country behind his administration, saying phrases including: “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”; “To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”; “With unity we can do great things. Important things.”; “History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.”; “For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.” I could go on, as the speech was chock-full of messaging around the theme of unity. Republicans have seized on this theme and have made a stink about how the Biden administration’s early actions have been the opposite of uniting, instead delivering wins for Democrats and progressives on many contentious issues. Both parties are wrong in their focus on political unity and what that means.
It may sound reassuring and comfortable, but political unity should not be something we are seriously looking for. Politics in a democratic republic like ours is meant to be fractious, not united. In our system of government, politics should be the arena of disagreement, debate, and argumentation; unity should be found elsewhere: in common national purpose, in the preservation of our unique form of government, and in local communities of friendship, faith, and family.
Let me take a brief moment to define some terms as I understand them and as I see them being used. The main one to focus on is the word ‘unity’ itself. When referred to in the political context, unity generally has meant bringing the population together behind a single political ideology, plan, or platform. In the inauguration speech linked above, this is clearly how ‘unity’ is being used. For example, the speech follows the line “With unity we can do great things. Important things.” with a list of political goals and moves from the Democratic party platform, including references to healthcare reform, economic redistribution, and racial justice. Those are not ideas which are held in common by the vast majority of the population; indeed, they seem more like ideas which are held by the Democratic voters who elected Joe Biden President in November. In an earlier portion of the speech, the new President called for a united approach to “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism,” things which are defined very differently based on who is doing the defining; critics on the right often claim (correctly in my opinion) that the terms ‘white supremacy’, ‘political extremism’, and ‘domestic terrorism’ are defined by the left in an overbroad and ideological manner and do not apply to forms of violence which the left considers righteous. If we cannot even agree on the definitions of the terms which we are uniting against, how is unity at all a reasonable approach?
The form of political ‘unity’ which I support and which should be striven for by all Americans is something I would call ‘Union’. Union, in this perspective, would be defined as unity in the most basic attributes of American society and politics: literally keeping our nation together (no secession, Texas and California), preserving our national institutions of government (including the military and Congress), and respecting our governing documents and the limits inherent within them. Union in this sense includes unity in basic purpose, meaning the most generic possible goals one could set for a nation: strength, prosperity, health, and freedom for our nation as a whole. Within this extremely broad framework, people of good faith and divergent politics can disagree and fight with one another over how best to achieve these goals, but they agree on the essential point of the nation: to continue into the future and expand its potential for its citizens. We can all work within this paradigm — even if our conceptions of the ‘good’ are incredibly different, even opposite. Those who do not fit within this model would be very few indeed, comprised only of secessionists, international revolutionaries, actual Communists and Fascists (not the overbroad modern definitions), and those who wish to destroy our nation and its governing institutions. This model of ‘Union’ is not at all what people mean when they push political ‘unity’, however.
The kind of political unity that I defined earlier, the one which was seen in the Biden inauguration speech and the Republican reactions to it, only serves to heighten political divisions by making out anyone who disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy — the one behind which we all must unite — as anti-American or fighting against the unity of the nation. That’s a recipe for disaster, particularly in a society like ours where politics has infiltrated all aspects of daily civic and social life. It is nearly impossible today to avoid political discussion or rhetoric, whether it is in sports, education, entertainment, religion, or other social activities or diversions. That polarizes a population, it doesn’t unite it. Those social and civic institutions, whether they are formal — as in schools, churches, or civic organizations — or informal — as in television, movies, games, and sports — are, in a healthy society, the realms in which people of vastly different, even opposed, political beliefs can unite and step away from the partisan fray. Building these civic and social bonds with those with whom we disagree politically leads to a healthier society, one where partisan national politics isn’t the be-all-end-all of life. Personally, I have friends and family members with whom I disagree often; that makes my life richer and happier than it would be were those relationships non-existent. I still love those people, no matter how much we may diverge on our thoughts about tax rates, school choice, economic policy, or healthcare. Having those relationships across political lines is what allows us to empathize with one another and makes it far harder for us to demonize our political opponents as evil; after all, if you are close with someone on the “other side”, you may think twice before seeing someone you don’t know as satanic or hell-bent on the destruction of the country.
We as a society and a nation need a return to our founding ideas of liberalism, tolerance, federalism, and the compartmentalization of politics. (And when I say ‘tolerance’, I mean the act of tolerating disagreement even on the third-rails of politics, not the simple social progressivism that masquerades as ‘tolerance’ these days.) Politics should be reserved for the realm of the political, not expanded into every facet of life; that way lies unhappiness, fractiousness, and civic distress. The statement “the personal is political” has been one of the worst ideas which has penetrated broadly into American society; it has broken the traditional bonds of community, church, and civil society in favor of atomized populations which focus myopically on political agreement over the deep satisfaction that results from a full life. We are all Americans. That must be the focus of our unity, not this political platform or that one. Politics mustn’t be imbued with the talismanic language of good and evil; it is merely how we work through disagreement in our society. Removing that healthy outlet for disagreement and instead expanding it into all facets of society is exactly the reverse of what we should be doing. The solution to American division is not political unity as defined by our partisan politicians, it is the strengthening of our Union, the de-politicization of wider society, and the return of local communities (as opposed to national ones) as the center of our lives. That requires the hard work of empathy, openness, and understanding, not the easy road of ‘unity’ pushed by political actors. That is the road to perdition, not salvation.