“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born;
in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
—Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)
Delivering his inaugural address in a garrisoned city where more than 20,000 troops from the National Guard were stationed only two weeks after Donald Trump egged on thousands of his followers to attack Congress in order to overturn the election, Joe Biden naturally organized his speech and the day’s festivities around the theme of “unity.” Not that he needed to be nudged in that direction: Biden’s campaign had often harped on how he would be a national healer and unifier who would end his predecessor’s fomenting of divisions.
Trump’s aborted putsch—a sinister event, no matter how clownishly executed—made these pleas more urgent and heartfelt. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward,” Biden insisted. He pointedly alluded to a previous moment of national discord by decrying the current “uncivil war.” The president who led the Union during the actual Civil War was recruited as a model by Biden as he stressed these words:
In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
When he put pen to paper, the president said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”
My whole soul is in it.
Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together.
The problem with unity is that by itself, unconnected to a meaningful political agenda, it is a vacuous concept. Unity is as easy to affirm as motherhood or national greatness—precisely because it makes no specific demands. Upholding unity by itself, paradoxically, produces conflict, since it opens the door to competing ideas of the terms of union.
The Civil War and Reconstruction illustrate the divisiveness of unity politics. Even those who agreed on the goal of unity fought mightily over the terms: Was the nation to be reunited by a return to the status quo ante, with slavery once again confined to the South (as many Doughface Democrats and moderate Republicans wanted)? Or was the abolition of slavery a prerequisite for true national restoration, as the abolitionists insisted? And after the war, was unity to be achieved by securing democracy for the formerly enslaved, as the Radical Republicans demanded? Or did a reintegration of the white South into the Union require abandoning Black Southerners to second-class status, as a bipartisan political elite decided in the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction?
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Biden had the right instincts in thinking back to Lincoln, for the same question faces America today: On what terms will a broken nation be made whole?
Biden’s inaugural address was itself a divided document, articulating two incompatible ideas of unity. On the one hand, he spoke of unity as comity. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect,” he said. “We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.”
This is a Kumbaya unity, a backward-looking call for a return to the days of elite cooperation, when everyone talked in their indoor voice in the back rooms where the deals were hammered out.
But Biden also voiced a radically different and more substantial vision of unity as democracy: the idea that unity requires marginalizing the promoters of lies and racism in the interest of creating a more genuinely equal society. In that spirit, he warned of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
Although he was 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 an injunction for moderate Republicans to reject the Trumpist wing of their party and work with Democrats on bolstering democracy and fighting racism.
The problem Biden faces is that unity-as-comity and unity-as-democracy are not just distinct but are actually at odds with each other. Republicans have quickly and shrewdly figured this out and realized that unity-as-comity offers them a language to sandbag Biden’s agenda. After all, if the goal is to get the two parties working together, then all the Republicans have to say is that any effort to push a Democratic agenda forward is anathema to Biden’s stated goal of unity.
A day after the inauguration, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton used “unity” to attack Rob Malley, a potential Biden foreign policy appointee whom he regards as insufficiently hawkish on Iran. “Appointing radicals like Malley gives the lie to all of President Biden and Tony Blinken’s rhetoric of unity,” Cotton tweeted. The following day Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted, “A radical leftist agenda in a divided country will not help unify our country, it will only confirm 75 million Americans biggest fears about the new administration.” Utah Senator Mitt Romney even complained that Biden’s push to restore the size of two national monuments in Utah “will only deepen divisions in this country.”
The consistent message from Republicans was: Unity means giving us everything we want. This cynical cooption of unity talk should lead Biden to junk the counterproductive unity-as-comity rhetoric. He needs to stop his invocation of elite cooperation as soon as possible, since it will make it impossible for him to govern or to fulfill the agenda that won him the election.
Instead, Biden needs to flesh out the idea of unity-as-democracy that he voiced at his inauguration. This means making explicit that the problem with Trump was not that he was divisive; after all, any healthy politics entails a battle of competing agendas. The problem was that Trump sowed division in the service of maintaining white supremacy by agitating racist groups, defining the nation along racial lines, pursuing voter suppression, and ultimately sparking a bungled coup. Until Republicans are made to confront and renounce this legacy, there can be no unity.