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The case against unity and why it matters

Not everyone has signed on to President Joe Biden’s call for a unified nation. But scholars say the nation’s founders saw competing factions can be healthy and the government they created could still thrive without the ideal of unity.

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen

President Joe Biden’s quest for national unity has hit a surprising roadblock in its first month: People who don’t think unity is a desirable goal.

The unity deniers include not only controversial pundits like Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly, who see unity as a synonym for selling out, but also scholars who say that America’s system of governance is not designed for a hand-holding utopia. And it’s not just Republicans scoffing at the idea of unity, but some Democrats, as well.

Progressive media critic Eric Boehlert has dubbed talk of unity a “charade,” saying there’s too much hand-wringing over why Biden is not putting forth policies that Republicans will like, but no talk of what Democratic policies that Republicans are willing to replace.

And writing for National Review, Andrew McCarthy accused congressional Democrats of wanting division for political gain. “Despite President Biden’s pretensions about bringing our nation together, Democrats want to impeach (former President Donald) Trump because it will be divisive, not despite its divisiveness. They are banking on his being acquitted and politically revived, not underestimating that possibility.”

Concern about a nation steeped in acrimony isn’t new. The fourth president, James Madison, and his wife Dolley also were intent on lowering the nation’s temperature early in the 19th century.  

But Madison saw competing factions as important to the fledgling nation, and the system of government that he helped create can thrive without the ideal of unity, some scholars say.

‘No principled moderate position’

In his inaugural address Jan. 20, Biden used the word “unity” or “uniting” 10 times. “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause,” he said.

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Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

Kelly, the podcaster and former Fox News host, was among conservatives who dismissed the talk of unity as rhetoric, saying, “We’re not gonna unite. It’s all nonsense.” Others pointed out on social media that Biden’s first actions as president, including expanding rights for LGTBQ Americans, were among the most divisive moves he could make, and they said his executive orders signify that he does not sincerely want to heal the nation’s polarization.

“The problem is, he really means unity as a mood,” said the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of “The Gathering Storm, Secularism, Culture, and the Church,” among other books. 

The Rev. Mohler said there are issues in which there is an opportunity for Americans to become more unified, including economic policy, immigration, COVID-19 relief and criminal justice reform.

“But on the issues that are categorical, like the sanctity of human life, there really is no principled moderate position,” he said.

He added, “Conservatives, and especially conservative Christians, owe the president of the United States — any president of the United States — the opportunity to seek to unify the nation. But those presidential words have to be backed up with presidential actions that unify.”

In his criticism on his blog PressRun, Boehlert noted that the inaugural address specifically noted areas in which Biden called for unity. None were about policy; instead, he called on Americans to join together against the “common foes” of anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.

“Nowhere in that speech did Biden suggest he was going to abandon his supporters and hand over his political agenda to the GOP in the name of ‘unity’ — because that would be absurd,” Boehlert wrote.

But Michael Wear, founder of Public Square Strategies and the author of “Reclaiming Hope,” a memoir of his work in the Obama administration, said that by emphasizing unity, Biden put a “standard and a burden” on his presidency, and the public is right to want to see efforts to meet that standard.

“For politics to mean anything, a standard advanced in the campaign is one that has to matter while governing,” Wear said in a tweet, adding, “What is needed now, alongside other priorities, is an agenda for building unity. That is a fair expectation.”

In an interview, Wear noted that Biden has yet to appoint a prominent registered Republican to his Cabinet or senior staff. “Personnel is important,” he said. So is outreach to constituencies who didn’t help get him elected. “For instance, there’s support for paid leave, for instance, and expansion of the child tax credit. That’s a policy with pro-family implications that are embraced by a pretty significant array of organizations. It’s a real opportunity to not just give folks a seat at the table, but also to say to the faith community, we want you taking the lead with this.

“But it will take time. You don’t build unity overnight; you don’t snap your fingers.”

Valuing ‘mischiefs of faction’

Philip Wallach, senior resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, four years ago wrote an essay entitled “Why America’s Next President Won’t Unite Us, Whoever It Is.” 

In the essay, Wallach argued that then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were too polarizing to bring America together. Biden is not widely seen as a polarizing figure, but Wallach doesn’t believe he can achieve unity either. One reason is that he doesn’t have the benefit of either party being in clear control.

When one party is clearly dominant, the other has motivation to figure out how to work with the opposition, Wallach said. When parties are in a tight battle for control, “it makes everyone more pugnacious.”

And while Democrats control both the White House and Congress, the Senate is split 50/50 and both parities are preparing to flip or strengthen congressional majorities in 2022.

While Biden could achieve something resembling unity on a particular issue, such as as getting the coronavirus under control, Wallach believes that unity as an overarching goal is overrated. 

“To me, unity has a kind of utopian connotation; really, the order of the day should be compromise,” he said. “Compromise is everyone giving up a little bit of what they want and finding their way forward. Unity seems to suggest we’re going to all start seeing things the same way.”

He added, “The whole purpose of our Madisonian constitutional system is to generate compromise. James Madison said, if you want to do away with faction, with ‘the mischiefs of faction,’ that’s a recipe for tyranny. That’s not consistent with a free society.

“But if you find a system that can pit factions against each other and make them work with each other to realize their goals, they you can compromise and get a way forward and that’s really the genius of the American constitutional system.”

Rewarding discord

Madison, the fourth president, did, however, have serious concern about a nation in which half the citizens were at the other half’s throats. As did his wife.

Dolley Madison, in fact, embarked on an unofficial quest to soothe the tempers of the quarrelsome young nation, said Catherine Allgor, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the author of two books on Dolley Madison, including “Dolley Madison: The Problem of National Unity.

Allgor said that during Madison’s presidency, the political climate of the U.S. was even hotter than today.

“In the early republic, the stakes were much higher, and the atmosphere was much worse.  The stakes were high because it was a new experiment in democracy and a republic. Everybody was watching to see if it was going to fail,” she said.

America was not yet a two-party system. “The idea was that everyone would work toward the common good. But if someone didn’t agree with you, they weren’t just wrong; they were traitors, because only one vision could prevail.

“And they were very violent about it,” Allgor said. “This was a very masculine, violent, political world. Men fought duels, they beat each other up and called each other out on the floor of Congress. There was actually combat in Congress.”

Although unity was never achieved, the temperature cooled when Dolley Madison began bringing congressional families together in what she called “the unofficial sphere.” At the time, families accompanied congressmen to Washington, and there were social gatherings and community work in which people got to know each other.

“It got harder to call someone the embodiment of evil when you’ve actually sat with his wife and kids and had dinner. They started to get to know each other as human beings,” Allgor said. That doesn’t happen often now, because members of Congress typically fly to Washington during the week and go home on the weekends, Allgor said.

“I have the recipe for unity, so Joe Biden can call me,” she said. “If he wants to have unity in the Capitol, he has to have an unofficial sphere. He has to have dinner parties, he has to have events where people can get to know each other as human beings and negotiate behind the scenes.”

Wear, of Public Square Strategies, said it’s not just public officials and their families that have to be involved if Biden’s vision of unity is to be fulfilled, in any measure.

“It’s very useful and helpful to have a president who gives an inauguration speech like he gave and set this goal of seeking unity, and that is an essential element. But it won’t be the singular cause of us moving to a better place in our politics. The American people have a responsibility here,” he said.

People have to stop rewarding politicians and others who sow discord with laud and attention, he said. “Even if they agree with them on broad policy goals, the American people need to start injecting costs to those who think political conflicts are to their benefit, or to some extent, this just won’t change.

“It’s a hard thing to say, that the state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls. But, at the end of the day, politics is, in some fundamental way, a reflection of who we are as people.”