THR Web Features   /   January 20, 2021

More Than Just a Word

Why national unity is so important—and so hard to preserve.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Arthimedes/Shutterstock.)

In most years, political talk about seeking unity and “pulling together” would attract little attention. It’s what politicians and commentators are supposed to say as one presidential administration or Congress gives way to another. Doing so shows the departing politician’s good manners and the newcomer’s hope for bipartisan collaboration. Normally, few of us think twice when lip service is given to unity at such transitional moments. 

But this is no ordinary year. The newly installed president made healing our national divisions one of his hallmark campaign themes. After the events of January 6, voices from  across the political spectrum took up the call. All of this was seemingly to the good—at least until many Congressional Republicans began to cite unity as a reason for their opposition to the former president’s impeachment. At that point, their Democratic colleagues and even some of their fellow Republicans objected that appealing to unity was an evasion, obscuring the severity of the issue at hand: the historic assault against the seat of government, and the question of the responsibility of the former president in provoking it. Unity so invoked was not merely empty rhetoric; it was an impediment to the proper administration of justice.

Yet even President Biden’s better-faith appeals to unity—appeals grounded in patriotism and the need to tackle the immense challenges of the pandemic and a flailing economy—have met resistance. Voices on the left say that such an emphasis on unity will potentially hand political opponents a weapon that can be turned against the president as he attempts to push through his agenda. Writing for The Nation, Richard Kreitner notes that “if Biden leans too hard on that message of unity, if he mistakes aspiration for reality, if he fails to adapt his political instincts to present-day conditions, then his presidency will be over before it begins.”

If unity is a staple of inaugural addresses and political transitions, and one that may too easily be abused, the challenge and importance of working for real unity should be neither understated nor undervalued. The present moment should at least make us mindful of how highly charged—and even risky—unity messages have sometimes been. Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase from his Second Inaugural Address—“With malice toward none and charity toward all”—for example, has been quoted so many times as a pretty piece of oratory that it’s hard to hear it as an actual political message.

 But perhaps in light of our current events, we can hear the full force of Lincoln’s words. When Lincoln said charity, he wasn’t calling for cash to be pressed into the palms of impoverished war widows. He was calling for love, and not just any love. As his audience well knew, he was invoking the “charity” that they found in their King James Bibles, which he had referred to a few sentences earlier. This was the kind of charity that “suffereth long, and is kind,” that “envieth not” and “is not puffed up,” that “is not easily provoked,” and that “thinketh no evil.” Consider what would happen if a politician seriously proposed this kind of “charity” as a means to fostering national unity right now. He or she would be accused of recklessness. How can you “bind up the nation’s wounds,” Mr. Lincoln, without first punishing the insurrectionists for their crimes to the utmost extent of the law? (Lincoln, for his part, saw the war itself as the just divine judgment against North and South alike for the nation’s historic “offense” of slavery. His “charity” was to be shared within an imagined community of the mourning, the wounded, the suffering; it was love among the ruins. That may be worth remembering in the days ahead.)

Being sent back to the speeches of Lincoln and other national leaders this week has helped me to see more clearly that the best unity messages consist of more than just calls to pull together or assertions of some vague latent harmony. The best ones advance arguments, many subtle, about our national life and character. Lincoln leveraged a potent word from an unmistakable source—the one book that he could expect that everyone in his audience would know and feel beholden to—in order to argue for grace in victory and defeat. The trouble with most unity messages today is that they stall at exhortation, as if simply uttering the word unity is enough. (In the Washington Post, Michael Gerson made just this point about political rhetoric in general, arguing that it “does not work by magic, as if great phrases…had the power of incantations.”) So we might ask ourselves what can serve as the basis of an effective call for unity in our times. On what could one found a case for it? What do we share? Whence unity?

Those questions are not at all new. Revisiting another piece of political oratory mentioned frequently of late, George Washington’s Farewell Address, I was reminded that Americans have been making arguments about the nature of their unity from the beginning. That address is in so many ways the distillation of the original American “unity argument”—the Founders’ argument for the republic, expressed in such texts as the Federalist Papers. As such, it might serve as a starting point of our own reflections on unity, beginning with this carefully wrought passage:

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest … 

What immediately stands out is Washington’s warning against the potential for “internal enemies” to sow discord and thereby jeopardize the national project from within. We have seen evidence of this danger with our own eyes. But the larger message of this passage is equally important—that the “unity of government” (meaning, the unity of the states, the republic) may be “dear” but is far from secure. The deliberate formality of Washington’s (or, more accurately, his ghost writer Alexander Hamilton’s) style—with its sprawling clauses and heavy use of the passive voice—can obscure the urgency of the first president’s claims, at least to the modern reader. We must remember that when Washington spoke these words, the republic was only eight years old. The ink on the Constitution had dried, but the durability of the paper on which it was printed remained to be seen.

Washington supplies many reasons for unity in this speech, but they all hinge on the keywords sympathy and interests. Weighty words in eighteenth-century political thought, they echo across the writings of the founding generation, including in James Madison’s claim, in Federalist Paper 57, that representative government creates an ideal “communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments” between rulers and ruled. The “communion of interests” part of Washington’s unity equation is in plain view in the first paragraph quoted above: The president is arguing that the union is in everyone’s best interests because it provides for a stronger national defense and the surest path to prosperity (or as we’d say today, the strongest economy). The implicit argument is that a state or a region going it alone would be far weaker in both respects (and thereby more liable to European domination) than the union, which, in turn, was stronger for having all of its members.

Sympathy, meanwhile, might seem like a strange argument for national unity now, given that we tend to think about it primarily as a private matter, the business of friends, family, and maybe your therapist. In Washington’s day, by contrast, sympathy was a stout political emotion, representing for the Founders the ability of citizens, especially elected ones, to understand their fellow citizens’ “sentiments,” meaning thoughts and feelings. For Washington, the motives for sympathy among Americans were numerous, as he goes on to observe:

With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes. 

The passage retraces the argument of Federalist Paper 2, where John Jay had listed all of the “sympathetic” qualities enumerated here—religion, manners, principles, a growing common history—as well as two more: the “same ancestors” and the “same language.” Sympathy, the Founders reasoned, should flow easily among people who shared so many religious, moral, and political convictions and who had endured, and already achieved, so much together. Look around, Washington was counseling his fellow citizens, and you will meet one sign after another that you are already “one people.” Unity did not merely present a sound military or economic policy, Washington contended; it was the proper, even natural, way for Americans to live together.

In the Farewell Address, Washington did not have the luxury of making vague appeals to unity. He had to provide a substantive answer to the question of what conditions and qualities underwrote the unity of the Americans he addressed. He, too, was asking, Whence unity? His answer included many of the best reasons that his generation had mustered, all rooted in the basic human concerns for safety, prosperity, and community. I would contend that the two primary motives for unity Washington names—interests and sympathy—still apply, even though the America we inhabit would hardly be recognizable to the first president.

His first point is far easier to see. Our common interests in national security and the economy are obvious. The long peace of the American mainland—which has not felt the footfall of an invading foreign army in centuries—remains the precondition of our “collective and individual happiness.” And while concerns about our prosperity abound, particularly about who prospers, the pandemic has served as a reminder of how interwoven our economic fortunes are. On top of these interests, we continue to share the overarching concern of Washington’s speech: the institutions of democracy that the founding generation brought into being. The siege of the Capitol was a blaring wake-up call reminding us that those institutions, indeed the republic itself, are fragile and so cannot be taken for granted.

The second half of the original “unity argument,” the sympathy side, is far more complicated now. Religion, manners, habits, political principles, ancestors, even language: Washington’s and Jay’s harmonies read like a list of things handpicked to show American disunity. These would now seem to be the qualities that make us unsympathetic to one another, unable to share in each other’s “sentiments.” In this respect, Washington’s case for sympathy may appear a dead end, or, worse, a reminder of an easy unity never to be ours again. We might conclude, in turn, that “interests” are really all we have—and within a pluralistic society can expect to have—in common. 

Yet while reading this section of Washington’s address, I wasn’t thrown into despair. Instead, my thoughts drifted back to one of the most important essays that I read last year, the historian Johann Neem’s essay “Unbecoming American” (THR, Spring 2020).  As that title suggests, Neem’s piece meditates on the shifts in American culture that he has witnessed since his childhood on a Bay Area cul-de-sac “whose residents were diverse in many of the usual American ways,” being “Japanese-Americans and Catholics and Protestants,” “people without college degrees, and others with graduate degrees,” “Republicans and Democrats,” “immigrants from Germany, and of course we were from India.” Looking back on that childhood, Neem offers a powerful lesson:

I lived in a world where we could all be American, not because of our cultural differences but because of what we could share. This shared culture—this sense of being a people—is a precondition to sustaining the universal ideals of American democracy. We like to pretend that principles are enough, but abstract ideas are thin gruel for flesh-and-blood human beings. We are not disembodied reasoners. We belong to groups. We have emotions. Culture connects us to our country and to one another. But that culture depends on shared rituals and experiences. Today, we are so afraid of offense that we risk privatizing the very culture we once could share together.

Neem perceives, just as the Founders did, that principles, however enlightened, are insufficient to sustain a democracy. “Flesh-and-blood” creatures cannot draw life from a pool of abstractions alone. More must be shared. To use the Founders’ language, Neem recognizes that democracy depends on the robust commerce of our sympathies. Yet Neem does not, and as he knows cannot, reach for the categories that Washington and Jay relied on in their arguments about what constitutes Americans a people. The essay’s great significance consists in Neem’s invitation to join him in seeking new, or renewed, grounds for sympathy. Neem wagers that we do share something, culture—as expressed in the common life of cul-de-sacs and communal rituals like exchanging gifts at Christmas—and that this shared culture may bind us as a people without becoming a “totalizing one” that requires us to sacrifice unique aspects of our identities. “We are many,” Neem writes, “but also one.”

Neem shows us that the unity of the people is not something that Americans can fall back on; it is something that we must find. Washington’s Farewell Address hints that this has always been the case. Notice the subordinate clause that introduces Washington’s list of shared qualities: “With slight shades of difference…” He, too, was revealingthe unity of the people that lay at a deeper stratum than the potentially divisive affiliations of denominations, sects, professions, and regions. 

Unity is an abiding problem of American life, though not an insoluble one. Calling for it is easy. The harder, but now vital, work is to argue for it, which requires discernment, persuasive reasoning, and even imagination. That may seem like a politician’s problem—like Joe Biden’s problem. Yet as I read Lincoln and Washington and Neem this week, I concluded that unity is my problem, too. So many of us have had our eyes opened to the deep fractures in our country by the turmoil of the last four years. And I sense within myself the danger of settling into a fixed attitude, of regarding many of my fellow citizens with a suspicious, unforgiving glare. Reading Neem, I realized that another possibility lies before me: to look again at the world of my everyday experience—the world of circling bicycles, generous neighbors of various political stripes, and belated holiday shopping. Perhaps there, at ground level, the quieter but ultimately more durable unities of American life wait to be discovered.