As America’s political culture increasingly comes to be bifurcated by partisanship, it’s become in vogue for politicians to rebuke the messy culture of mudslinging and insult-trading that many people associate with tribalistic party politics.
Some of this is a reaction to the straight-talk, tough-guy persona of former-President Donald Trump, whose off-the-cuff remarks frequently riled his critics in the media and in politics.
But the paternalistic concern, most often articulated by credentialed members of the political class in soft and sober tones, long predates Trump’s entrance into Republican politics.
During the 2012 GOP primary, Newt Gingrich ran on the idea that the stable of candidates should not attack each other, which he claimed would present a weak front to the media and give Democrats talking points to exploit.
This practice was put more-or-less into practice during the 2016 GOP primary, wth many of the frontrunners ignoring Trump, whom they considered to be a non-serious opponent. This approach was to their folly, as history now documents. And that’s hardly surprising: modern parties sell themselves by offering a shelter to people of diverse ideologies. Primaries are a debate over which of the subgroups which Republicans and Democrats house should be represented–and make the major argument in the broader populace–during the general election.
It is because the structure of government, as well as the structure adopted by modern parties, works to preserve division driven by real differences in belief that unity is not a useful political virtue.
Unity put into practice in the context of a system of government like America’s usually rests on actions that can be taken by one person: unilateral executive rule.
The first few weeks of the Biden administration have highlighted this.
In his inaugural address, Joe Biden adopted a conciliatory tone: speaking softly and earnestly not just to his supporters but his skeptics. He harped on the importance of unity:
“To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart.
And if you still disagree, so be it.
That’s democracy. That’s America. The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.”
Rhetorically, this message strikes the right chord: the president is the only elected official whose constituency includes the nation as a whole and he should work in good faith for even those who don’t support him.
However, Biden has yet to put this message into action. The most tangible form of peaceful dissent in American politics is the legislative process. It’s here that minority voices have the chance to object to policies favored by the majority and win converts to their side.
If Biden were really dedicated to unity, he would break the trend of modern presidents, who endrun the roadblock of legislative gridlock by turning to executive action to implement policy. But the trend set by Biden in his first few weeks in office has actually relied more on executive actions than his recent predecessors.
By last Friday, Biden had signed 42 executive actions. In the early weeks of his presidency, he’s issued nearly as many executive orders as Donald Trump and Barack Obama combined.
Presumably Biden agrees with himself, so, from a certain way of thinking, this is unity. But it’s not a process that respects what Biden himself, in his first moments as the executive, named the greatest strength of the nation: peaceful dissent.
It’s hard to dissent when you have no say in the process. And if Joe Biden’s right in his assessment of America’s political strengths and weaknesses, then his recent actions show no respect for the country.
Many of his earliest executive orders were aimed at reversing actions taken by Trump during his presidency, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Trump, of course, has no right to have his decisions respected once he’s out of office: and this is the problem with legislation done via the executive. It’s anything but indelible and stark changes in its direction are more than just moments that spark joy for political activists; they affect people’s lives.
That Biden was able to completely reverse so many of the policies of his predecessors also helps make the case that unity is rarely useful in American politics. The contrasting views of Trump and Biden represent the very different attitudes their parties, and all those who make them up, have towards government and its rightful use of power.
Biden’s right: that’s something that needs to be preserved. And not just in the electorate, but in government, too.
An extremely important principle of America’s system of representative government–and what separates it from democracies–is the idea that elections are not actually a mandate: they don’t
give the victorious party carte blanche authority to implement whatever policies they desire.
Theoretically, a majority gives the party in power the mathematical ability to pass whatever they like: the numbers are in their favor. But debate precedes a vote: and, particularly with slim majorities, the dominant party may be arguing across the aisle as much to its own members, who perhaps belong to a subsect of the party and have different ideas about policy goals than the leadership.
The federal government, and the legislative branch in particular, is designed to prevent run-away majorities. It is designed to thwart unity and ensure that all factions who have managed to win popular support and find representation in Congress, have their ability to influence the political process.
Fundamentally, the unity Biden described in his inaugural address and respect for the right of the minority–and even minority voices within the majority–to peacefully disagree are at odds.
American government is designed to promote division: there’s division in the structure of government, which prevents a motivated, unified force from running roughshod over those who disagree. The 10th Amendment recognizes that states are diverse and should have the ability to pursue disparate choices best suited for their unique needs, even if those differ from the choices their neighbors make. The 1st Amendment protects the right of the people and the press to sow division by speaking their minds and questioning the government.
Biden should drop the calls for unity and his executive actions, which skirt the need for debate, and embrace the dysfunction and division of American politics.