Much to the chagrin and disdain of the far left, President Biden loves to talk about “unity.” In this time of great peril and political division, he both ran as a “unity” candidate and is now trying to govern as a “unity” president. In his inaugural address, he mentioned “unity” eight times and made it one of the basic themes of his administration. Here are some key excerpts:
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. Unity.
I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new.
Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial.
History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.
For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.
This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.
Much of Biden’s appeal to “unity” is clearly politically motivated—it’s what people exhausted by four(+) years of extreme partisanship and polarization want to hear. Even in theory, “unity” makes us feel better.
But I would also say he’s basically right: Some kind of “unity” is essential for progress in a democracy. As a nation, we can only confront our greatest challenges and build something together on the basis of broadly-shared values, norms, and a sense of mutual benefit. Even when we disagree or don’t get our way, we must “treat each other with dignity and respect” and uphold the norms that have long sustained our republic.
But of course, Trump and his far right supporters haven’t made that easy. They have treated their opponents with neither dignity nor respect. They’ve done nothing “in good faith.” They’ve always played fast-and-loose with the truth and have made a mockery of our shared norms and values. They’ve always favored win-lose tactics and policies over win-win ones. They have been gleefully tearing holes in the fabric of our democracy for years. In this context, it can often feel, as Stephen Colbert recently put it, that Biden and left-leaning moderates are trying to jam “some unum up our pluribus.”
My progressive peers tend to groan and roll their eyes at the mention of the word “unity.” I think that’s because they are legitimately concerned that “unity” means sacrificing the greater good. I share some of their concern. But I think that’s partly based on a misconception that “unity” means bipartisanship.
Bipartisanship in politics is not a bad thing, but it’s not an inherently good thing either. Compromise is the essence of democracy, but it’s not equivalent to bipartisanship. I’m only in favor of bipartisanship when it works for the greater good, either in the short- or long-term. If bipartisanship means sacrificing what’s best for the country—and what is already reasonably achievable in a democracy along party lines—then to hell with it. Our measure should be the quality of legislation, not the amount of bipartisanship involved.
If the Republicans in the Senate aren’t willing to take the actions that are necessary to preserve and promote the common good (likely), and Democrats can actually get there on their own (debatable), then we should alter or get rid of the filibuster, bipartisanship be damned. Our current challenges are too great for a limp-wristed government response. The Democrats must seize this very limited opportunity.
But “unity” doesn’t necessarily mean “bipartisanship in Congress.” “Unity” is something deeper, more fundamental, and much more important. It means taking an approach of democratic coexistence, and the responsibility it entails. It means choosing in countless small ways, as Dr. King once put it, to plod along the arduous path of “nonviolent coexistence” over that of “violent coannihilation.”
One of my favorite authors at The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum, recently helped clarify for me this distinction between unity-as-bipartisanship and unity-as-coexistence in a piece called “Coexistence Is the Only Option.” Millions of Americans, she writes, “cheered the [Capitol] rioters on—and still do.” In fact, we might as well get used to them being around. She explains:
As a group, it’s hard to know what to call them. They are too many to merit the term “extremists.” There are not enough of them to be “secessionists.” […] For want of a better term, I’m calling all of them “seditionists”—not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it […].
Not all Republicans are seditionists, nor is everyone who voted for Trump, nor is every conservative: Nothing about rejecting your country’s political system is conservative. Still, those who do hold these views are quite numerous. In December, 34 percent of Americans said they did not trust the outcome of the 2020 election. More recently, 21 percent said that they either strongly support or somewhat support the storming of the Capitol building. As of this week, 32 percent were still telling pollsters that Biden was not the legitimate winner.
Even if we assume that only half of those polled are impassioned by politics, and even if we put the number of truly seditious Americans at 10 or 15 percent, that’s a very large number of people. For although Trump will eventually exit political life, the seditionists will not. They will remain, nursing their grievances, feverishly posting on social media, angrily listening to Tucker Carlson […] and energetically running for office. […]
Perhaps in 2022, more seditionists will enter Congress […]. Perhaps in 2024, seditionists, rather than reality-based Republicans, will be running the elections in Georgia and Arizona. Americans could see worse postelection scenarios than the one we’ve just lived through.
We could also see more violence. Since the election, the Bridging Divides Initiative, a group that tracks and counters political violence in the U.S., has observed a singularly ominous metric: a sharp uptick in the number of protests outside the homes of politicians and public figures […] many featuring “armed and unlawful paramilitary actors.”
That’s scary stuff. These people are not going away any time soon and they’re much too numerous for us to simply ignore or “annihilate” by some show of public scorn or force of the law. The only real option is “coexistence.” As much as we hate to admit it, we are all in this together and must figure out a way to make it work and move forward. The alternative—out-and-out civil war—is much worse. Applebaum spends the rest of her article attempting to offer further justification and practical ways we might go about promoting this version of “unity,” even in these dangerously divided times. Here’s the slightly abridged version:
We have no choice except to coexist. But how? Clearly we need regulation of social media, but that’s years away. Of course we need better education, but that doesn’t help us deal with the armed men who were standing outside the Ohio statehouse this week.
Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.
This was not accidental. The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as “local” and “community-based” and “economic regeneration.” It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.
Translating this basic principle to the vast landscape of the U.S. is not easy: We don’t have UN peacebuilding funds to pay for red-blue community centers […]. We are not fighting over control of street corners in West Belfast. But the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. […]
Although the bipartisan appeal of roads, bridges, and railways has become a joke—Trump’s promised “Infrastructure Week” never happened—infrastructure investment can produce projects benefiting all of society too. So can a cross-community discussion about infrastructure, or even infrastructure security. Get potential protesters of different political views into a room and ask them, “How are we going to protect our state capitol during demonstrations?” Ask for ideas. Take notes. Make the problem narrow, specific, even boring, not existential or exciting. “Who won the 2020 election?” is, for these purposes, a bad topic. “How do we fix the potholes in our roads?” is, in contrast, superb.
And how do we invite seditionists to a public meeting if they won’t read emails from anyone outside their bubble? Here’s another tactic from the world of conflict prevention: work with trusted messengers, people who have authority within the seditious community, who sympathize with its shared values but are nevertheless willing to talk their comrades down from the brink. […]
Not that this phenomenon is anything new: In 1930, a white Texan named Jessie Daniel Ames founded an organization called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, a group that campaigned against anti-Black violence. Ames both intervened directly, even confronting lynch mobs in person, and engaged in education and advocacy. Her group sometimes sat uneasily alongside its northern counterparts—its members opposed federal intervention and denounced lynching, not for universal reasons but on the grounds that it was contrary to the creed of southern, white, Christian women—but it worked: In areas where the group operated, the violence went down.
Rachel Brown […] told me that she sometimes uses that case study when talking to religious leaders, business leaders, and veterans across the country—people who might be heard in the seditious community—when trying to persuade them to start parallel projects of their own. Clearly the Republican Party is well placed to reach out to members who have rejected democracy, which is why it’s important to support the Adam Kinzingers and the Ben Sasses, even the Mitch McConnells who belatedly and self-interestedly switch sides: Better late than never, especially if it helps undermine the seditionists’ conviction and makes them feel doubt. […]
Finally, we could learn some useful lessons from Colombia, a country that has for several years tried, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to bring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society. The guerrilla movement had sustained itself for more than 50 years by selling drugs and ransoming hostages, and the decision to reintegrate its members created great ambivalence, and even hostility: Understandably, people don’t especially relish the idea of working alongside former FARC operatives who might have murdered their relatives, let alone paying taxes so that the government can help them retrain and find jobs. At the same time, leaving them to wage drug wars in the jungle isn’t a solution either, and so the program continues.
America’s situation is nowhere near as extreme […] but some of the Colombian program’s principles have useful resonance. It focuses on the long term, offering former outcasts the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate. Not everyone will like the idea, but America’s seditionists arguably pose a similarly long-term social problem. True believers—especially those who are unemployed, underemployed, or so far down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole that they can no longer cope with ordinary life—are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to be pried away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative, just as the ex–FARC members are offered the alternative of a legal life in society.
Not coincidentally, this is exactly the kind of advice that can be heard from psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults. Roderick Dubrow-Marshall […] told me that in both cases, identification with the group comes to dominate people psychologically. “Other interests and ideas become closed off,” he said. “They dismiss anything that pushes back against them.” Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America […]. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.
I know that was a lot, but I think she makes some really important points—a few of which I have tried to make in much less eloquent or academic fashion here and here. “Unity” is more about loving our enemies/neighbors and being willing to treat them like fellow human beings in spite of our differences than it is about bipartisanship in Congress. Let’s remember that.