“The crisis is precisely that the old dies and the new cannot be born.
A multitude of pathological symptoms occur in this interregnum. “
– –Antonio Gramsci, Notebooks from prison (1930)
D.Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address in a garrison town where more than 20,000 National Guard soldiers were stationed just two weeks after Donald Trump prompted thousands of his supporters to attack Congress to overthrow the elections. Of course, he organized his speech and the festivities of the day around the topic of “unity”. Not that he needed to be pushed in that direction: Biden’s campaign had often pondered how he would be a national healer and unifier who would end his predecessor’s split.
Trump’s abandoned coup – an eerie event, no matter how clownishly it was carried out – made these requests more urgent and heartfelt. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the way forward,” said Biden persisted. He explicitly alluded to an earlier moment of national discord in deciphering the current “civil war”. The president, who led the Union during the actual civil war, was enlisted by Biden as a role model for emphasizing these words:
Another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Declaration of Emancipation.
As he put the pen on paper, the President said, “If my name ever goes down, it will be for this act and all of my soul is in it.”
My whole soul is in it.
Today, on this January day, my whole soul is involved: Bringing America together.
The problem with unity is that, in and of itself, regardless of a meaningful political agenda, it is an empty concept. Unity is as easy to affirm as motherhood or national size – precisely because it does not make any special demands. The preservation of unity in itself paradoxically leads to conflict as it opens the door to competing ideas about the conditions of union.
The civil war and the reconstruction illustrate the division of unity politics. Even those who agreed on the goal of unity fought fiercely over the terms: Should the nation be reunited by a return to the status quo ante, with slavery again restricted to the South (like many Doughface Democrats and moderate Republicans wanted to)? Or was the abolition of slavery a prerequisite for real national restoration, as the abolitionists pointed out? And should unity be achieved after the war by securing democracy for the formerly enslaved people, as the radical republicans demanded? Or did the reintegration of the white South into the Union require the transfer of the black southerners to second-class status, as a non-partisan political elite had decided in the compromise of 1877, which ended reconstruction?
Biden had the right instinct to think back to Lincoln, because the same question arises America today: under what conditions will a broken nation be made whole?
Biden’s inaugural address was itself a divided document articulating two irreconcilable ideas of unity. On the one hand, he spoke of unity as a community. “We can treat one another with dignity and respect,” he said. “We can band together, stop the screaming and lower the temperature.”
This is a kumbaya unit, a reverse call for a return to the days of elite collaboration when everyone in the back rooms where the deals were being negotiated spoke to their inside voices.
But Biden also expressed a radically different and more substantial vision of unity than democracy: the idea that unity requires the marginalization of proponents of lies and racism in order to create a truly equal society. With that in mind, he warned of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism that we must face and defeat”.
While careful not to mention his predecessor by name, the intent of this call for unity as democracy was clearly to divide the republican opposition. It is a call on moderate Republicans to reject the Trumpist wing of their party and to work with Democrats to strengthen democracy and fight racism.
The problem Biden is faced with is that unity as unity and unity as democracy are not only different, but actually contradict each other. The Republicans found this out quickly and wisely, realizing that unity as a community provides them with a language for Biden’s agenda. If the goal is to get the two parties to work together, all Republicans have to say is that any effort to advance a democratic agenda is anathema to Biden’s stated goal of unity.
One day after inauguration, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and “Unity” attacked Rob Malley, a potential foreign policy representative for Biden, whom he considers insufficiently hawkish about Iran. “The appointment of radicals like Malley belies the rhetoric of the unity of President Biden and Tony Blinken,” Cotton tweeted. The following day Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “A radical left-wing agenda in a divided country will not help unite our country. It will only affirm 75 million Americans who are most afraid of the new government.” Utah Senator Mitt Romney even complained that Biden’s drive to restore the greatness of two national monuments in Utah “will only deepen divisions in that country.”
The consistent message of the Republicans was: Unity means give us everything we want. This cynical co-option of the unity talk should lead Biden to reject the counterproductive rhetoric of unity as a community. He must end his appeal to elite cooperation as soon as possible as he will be unable to govern or fulfill the agenda that won him the election.
Instead, Biden has to concretize the idea of unity as democracy that he expressed when he was inaugurated. This means making it clear that the problem with Trump wasn’t that he split; After all, all healthy politics is linked to a battle of competing agendas. The problem was that Trump sowed division in the service of maintaining white supremacy by rousing racist groups, defining the nation on racial terms, pursuing voter suppression, and ultimately sparking a botched coup. Unless Republicans are forced to face and forsake this legacy, there can be no unity.