“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire that destroys everything in its path,” he said. “Every disagreement does not have to be a cause for total war.”
Who Can’t Agree?
By making unity his goal and the yardstick by which he will be judged, Biden is preparing for failure. As Biden made the last leg of the first parade route, some CNN journalists shouted, “President Biden, can you unite the country?”
He didn’t answer, but if he had, honesty should have been forced to say, “Probably not, actually.” Just as no one really got tired of all of the victory under President Trump, so no one will get tired of all of the unification under President Biden.
There are two problems with demands for unity. One is that they tend to be nebulous and leave out what we are all supposed to unite.
We should all respect and honor each other as Americans and try to preserve our government institutions, but beyond that, it gets fuzzy (and even whether we should preserve these institutions and how to proceed is controversial).
The other problem is that calls to unity can carry one Expectation the belief that truly reasonable people cannot or should not object in good faith on matters of profound importance. This is how self-proclaimed unifiers become haughty and divisive (Obama has often fallen into this trap).
Regardless, there are deep factors in our politics and society that make it more difficult to achieve unity than when Biden emerged in politics.
The media landscape is not as conducive to promoting and – de facto enforcing – consensus as it was in the pre-cable and pre-internet era of three broadcast networks. Attempts to reach consensus by making decisions about what content to allow and suppress on today’s social networks and websites will not succeed. In fact, acts of censorship that are mostly directed against conservatives (aside from being false) will generate an already good backlash along the way.
As problems with cultural strain have come to the fore in recent decades, the divisions deepen and are less prone to compromise or negotiation. The difference between the 1619 project and the Trump 1776 commission (immediately annulled by Biden) involves profound questions about the nature of our land that cannot be resolved at a meeting of the House Budgets Committee.
Finally, and related to this, the parties have become increasingly pure in purely ideological, cultural and geographical opposition to one another. These differences cannot be bridged simply by good faith and goodwill.
Then there are the more immediate practical problems.
Soon Trump will be the center of Washington’s impeachment trial that will fuel the anger of his populist supporters. This is no reason to drop the case, but no one should pretend that a post-presidency trial attempting to expel Trump from federal office is anything but a highly controversial drama that obliterates everything that happens to get the new Biden government going.
In essence, Biden will not have a bipartisan, but a progressive agenda. That is his right. He is a democrat who has always been at the center of his party, which has steadily moved to the left over the decades. He will not respond to the more extravagant demands of his party’s left – end the filibuster, add new states – both out of temperament and because he lacks the Senate vote to do so. But almost anything it does unilaterally or legally advocates will be inherently anathema to the GOP.
Additionally, if Trump gets out at such a low point, there will be a temptation to ignore the lessons of his rise. The fact that one of Biden’s first major legislative proposals is another “comprehensive immigration reform”, which has repeatedly failed after massive grassroots opposition was mobilized on the right, shows the impulse to learn nothing.
Even so, President Biden can do his part to bring down the temperature of our policies and raise the tone by simply not stirring the pot every day like Donald Trump did, and by adhering to the norms that his predecessor tossed aside Has. This won’t be transformative, but there might actually be some unity around the suggestion that it will be a welcome change.