When There’s Disunity About Unity

President Biden spoke a lot about unity in his inaugural address:

Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now. . . . 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. . . .

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. Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.

With unity we can do great things. Important things. . . .

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. . . . 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. Victory is never assured.

Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, . . . enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And, we can do so now. 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.

In a phrase, I’d say he was asking that we work together for the common good.

Tom Malinowski, the Democrat who represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, put it this way:

Unity doesn’t mean Republicans must become Democrats, or vice versa. We just need unity around telling the truth, respecting the law, defending democratic outcomes, rejecting violence — and restoring some sense of shame and accountability for those who refuse.

The Washington Post editorial board offered their opinion:

The nation’s political system is designed to manage and channel disagreement peacefully and, ideally, with a level of respect and decorum. . . . That system ensures that no one gets everything they want and everyone has a fair chance to appeal to the people.

Unity in such a system requires, first, that the actors within it recognize that one can disagree in good faith. Those with different views are not the enemy of the people, and they should be listened to seriously. Second, unity requires that politicians prioritize achieving things for the country over ruining their political opponents. They should look for win-win scenarios. Third, it requires respect for the process. Leaders should refrain from abusing the system to rout the other side, either when wielding power or obstructing its use.

Mr. Biden appears to be teeing up big initiatives that should appeal to many Republicans, if they intend to meet the president’s calls for unity with good faith. These include further Covid-19 relief, historic investment in U.S. infrastructure and bipartisan immigration reform. . . . 

Republicans should allow Mr. Biden to exercise the usual powers of the presidency without accusations that he is promoting disunity by advancing policies he campaigned on. They can note principled disagreements without resorting to divisive invective. Then they should seek to have their views represented in Covid, infrastructure, immigration and other bills through good-faith negotiation. That’s what unity, in a democracy, should look like.

That all sounds reasonable. But there’s this from Sahil Kapur of NBC News:

When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties’ definitions of the word . . . Republican leaders have pitched a vision of unity in which Biden refrains from actions that antagonize their base of voters, who, polls say, falsely doubt the legitimacy of his election, give [the former president] high approval ratings and want their leaders to resist Biden’s agenda [or the caricature of Biden’s agenda as “far left” delivered by Fox News]. . .

A poll by the Pew Research Center taken this month captures the asymmetry. Democrats said by a 25-point margin that Biden should work with Republicans to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some of his voters. But Republicans said the opposite: By a 21-point margin, they said GOP leaders should “stand up to Biden” on big issues even if that makes it harder to tackle critical problems.

“Republicans are saying, ‘We can’t do anything with you if you’re radioactive with our base, so please don’t say anything that makes you radioactive to our base,'” said Republican consultant Michael Steel, a former House leadership aide.

As an example, after Biden lifted the ban on transgender troops imposed by his predecessor, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas gave a sarcastic response:

Another “unifying” move by the new Administration?

To which Kyle Griffin of MSNBC responded:

The senator is confused. Or uninformed.

Gallup 2019: In U.S., 71% Support Transgender People Serving in Military.

Military Times: Two-thirds of troops support allowing transgender service members in the military, Pentagon study finds.

We have a new president who believes in unity, by which he means working together for the common good. That can be understood to some extent as embracing policies preferred by a majority of Americans (e.g. raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the rich, protecting the environment, less military spending, not putting children in cages, and so on).

We also have a cohort of Republican politicians who define “the common good” as whatever pleases their most radical supporters, a minority who wanted four more years like the last four and keep pushing their party further and further to the right.

Nobody said this would be easy, but it would help a lot if we could first unify around a common definition of “unity”. Since the odds are strongly against that, Biden and the Democrats need to constantly and quickly work for the common good, even when that makes Fox News’s audience unhappy.