Rethinking the Meaning of Unity

Bringing together Americans, not Congress

Republicans like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Representative Jim Jordan have made a mockery of the idea of unity. “We must come together and put this anger and division behind us,” Cruz said the day after the deadly insurrection that he helped incite by perpetrating the Big Lie of voter fraud and opposing election certification. “I do not see how this unifies the country,” Jordan complained as the House planned to impeach the Inciter-in-Chief for the second time.

Such Republican cries for the country to unify and move on sounded more hypocritical and self-serving than the endless ring of “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings. Unity from their mouths became a sad cry to bury the truth and avoid accountability.

Yet Joe Biden, as both candidate and newly minted president, let it be known that bipartisan unity is important to him. Way back in 2019, he talked of “unity over fear” and his belief that “Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what we’ve always been about: Unity.”

This was meant as inspiration. But post-insurrection in particular, many observers (myself included) worried that his belief in unity meant that he would gloss over myriad horrors with a nostalgic gaze at olden days, rather than confront the criminal realities of the present. (Merrick Garland’s pledge during confirmation hearings to investigate the Capitol insurrection and follow all leads “wherever they take us” has taken the edge off that worry.)

It seems like a lifetime ago when the differences between Democrats and Republicans didn’t mean supporting the Constitution and democracy on the one side and trashing the rule of law in a perverse push toward autocracy and power by any means necessary on the other. It’s increasingly hard to remember the warm glow on lawmakers’ faces when they discussed the fabled friendship of Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill and their efforts to compromise.

But what we’ve seen over the last month is a reimagined take on unity. Forget compromise with an intransigent, often-sociopathic minority. Forget trying to negotiate with the terrorist wing undeterred by political violence (or, worse, supporting it).

Rather, pursue the larger idea of unity that comprises a wide swath of the American electorate. And don’t let elected Republicans who’ve abandoned the responsibility of representative government call the shots, as if they are genuine stand-ins for the will of the people.

We saw this play out with the COVID-19 relief bill when not a single Republican joined the majority, yet Democrats underscored the high approval ratings for this legislation that included 70 percent of all Americans and even a sizable 40 percent of Republicans. We’ll likely see this focus on what binds Americans outside the DC bubble expressed this week as the President and Vice President traverse the country to promote the freshly passed American Rescue Plan Act.

And we can expect this same ethos to drive legislative debate in the coming months as voting rights, a $15-per-hour minimum wage and other hotly contested issues take center stage. Holding the narrowest of margins, expect talk of what’s good for the country—and what a majority of the country supports—to influence the continued and necessary push to end the filibuster.

I for one wish the GOP was comprised of elected officials open to reason and debate and reality. But, with very few exceptions, it seems they have abandoned any suggestion of pursuing common ground when they remain obedient to the other guy and the extremist death cult that has chosen to stick with Trumpism, come hell and high water (both of which are not far from view).

There’s a reason why the more reasonable among them, like Senators Richard Burr, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman, have announced that they are dropping out when their terms are up.

In his inauguration address, Biden didn’t mince words when he talked about ending an “uncivil war” and his desire for unity. “My whole soul is in this—bringing America together,” he said.

That pursuit could not be more important, but we know now that means bringing together the disparate elements of our diverse and deeply frayed mosaic of citizens—not counting on the behemoth and maybe insurmountable task of convincing elected officials from across the political spectrum to join hands in common purpose.