A Worthwhile Unity

By Guest Contributor Professor Robert B. Talisse, Vanderbilt University

President Biden’s calls for unity are rhetorically potent.  But they’re empty in the absence of an object around which to unify.  The problem is that once that object is identified, our partisan divisions are awakened.  When the call for unity comes from a Democratic president, Republicans hear a demand for capitulation to his agenda.  Why should they unify around the other party’s priorities?  Unity seems worthless.

A paradox emerges. Unless they’re hollow, pleas for unity inflame our divisions.  But if left undefined, unity is inert, offering no direction forward.  Either way, unity backfires.

Some say that appeals to national unity are meant to remind us that political divides must be rooted in a common reality – a mutual basis in reason and fact.  The idea is that disputes must have an agreed upon point of contention.  Otherwise, disputants only talk past each other.  Disagreements presuppose common ground.  That’s a kind of unity.

This is a sound philosophical insight, as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t’ go very far.  “Reality,” “fact,” and “reason” also need definition.  The call for a return to facts is hollow until one specifies what those facts are.

But that’s exactly what’s in dispute.  Republicans and Democrats are divided over the facts, how they are discerned, and what to believe in light of them.  Just like calls for unity, pleas for everyone to “return to facts” backfire.

Actually, it’s worse than that.  Calls for a return to reality insist that our two parties embrace opposing conceptions of what’s real.  There may be something to that thought, but here’s the catch: if your opponents work with their own view of reality, there’s no way you can say their beliefs are false.  So, if Democrats claim that Republicans have constructed their own reality, then they’re in no position to criticize Republican beliefs.  What do Democrats know about Republicans’ reality?  They’re Democrats, after all.

The predictable response is that many Republicans have embraced a false reality.  This may be a satisfying retort, but there’s less to it than meets the eye.  What is a “false reality”?  If it’s false, how is it reality?  “False reality” is just a grandiose way of talking about false beliefs.  So, if the appeal to unity is a plea to return to facts, it ultimately is the assertion that Republicans’ beliefs are false.

We’re right back where we started: Republicans and Democrats disagree deeply.  Explaining “unity” by reference to “facts” and “reality” goes nowhere.

Let’s assume that in calling for unity, Biden seeks relief from the kind of toxic partisanship that leads significant portions of both parties to see those on the other side as enemies rather than mere opponents.  Unity in this sense is indeed a crucial social good.  Nevertheless, it is an incoherent goal.  This is because unity is a byproduct.  It emerges from working together towards other collective goods.  Like friendship, fun, and love, when unity is pursued for itself, it flees.  If we seek unity, we need to pursue something else.

But what?  Our country is facing a crisis brought about by the pandemic.  Citizens might come together in support of concrete plans for meeting urgent shared needs: a national economic recovery agenda, a federal vaccination program, and a collective plan for repairing the damage wrought by the pandemic to our families and our school-age children.

Still, it is not enough for the President to manage our recovery.  Leading a country through a crisis calls for a reaffirmation of the basic values of our democratic republic.  The President must frame his recovery program as an expression of the nation’s commitment to political equality, government accountability, individual liberty, and the dignity of all.

It has been a long time since we last heard a President speak about fundamental democratic values rather than strength, profit, and power.  This means that our President now needs to do more than urge us to “return to” our values.  We need a fresh articulation of what those values are.  The President must make the case that democratic citizens ought to embrace those values, even though they remain politically divided.  He needs to rebuild, rather than beckon, our core moral stance.

This takes more than slogans.  It requires nothing short of a renewal of the nation’s moral imagination.  Our basic commitments must be expressed in a way that conveys their subtle rationale, complex history, and dignifying promise.  In formulating these values, the President must recognize that although they are far from being realized in our nation, they reflect the democratic aspiration outlined in our Constitution.  Most importantly, it must be emphasized that affirming our values will not erase our political divides, but instead will place our divisions within a shared aspiration that’s strong enough to withstand the inevitable hostilities of partisanship.

It’s a tall order.  But the close of the Impeachment Trial allows Biden to reset.  As the administration works to tackle the challenges we face, the President needs to be more than a competent manager.  He must help us to see his actions as not mere fixes, but as a renewal of our moral fiber.  He must revitalize the democratic aspiration.

In short, the nation doesn’t need to get back to facts.  We need a return to values.  And we don’t need Biden to be a unifier.  But we might achieve a worthwhile unity if Biden can be a philosopher.

Title Image Credit: “A Time of Perfect American National Unity is a Myth, But Some US Origin Stories Are Better Than Others,” History on the Net.