OP-ED: What does unity mean? Joe Biden is demanding something that's as elusive as it is unnecessary

Josh Greenman
New York Daily News (TNS)
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

The theme of Joe Biden’s inaugural address was that we must bring America together as a prerequisite to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, revive the economy, confront climate change, move toward racial justice and accomplish so many other big things.

“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” said Biden. “And unity is the path forward.”

Unity is indeed a calming notion, especially after a rabid mob of thousands stormed the Capitol, and as millions more subscribe to the notion that the election was stolen, that the news media is made up of enemies of the people and that we’re effectively many different nations along geographic, racial, ideological and demographic lines.

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But what does it really mean, and where does this idea come from that we need it in order to tackle the challenges of the moment? More pointedly, why does the man who served as vice president to Barack Obama, who asked for unity, got scoffed at and still delivered significant change, really think we need it now?

Take an example. Do we really need, and can we get, anything like unity before implementing criminal justice reforms? A big swath of Americans believe that police are under siege by opportunists who want criminals to escape consequences; another thinks that Black and Brown Americans are at the mercy of a profoundly racist criminal justice system; another sits somewhere in the middle, nodding to both sides.

That’s just one among dozens of examples in which the people of this country effectively live on different planets, and often for reasons deeply entwined with our very identities. (Don’t blame social media; the divides existed long ago.) If we see unity as the prerequisite for action, waiting for people to come far closer together socially and culturally before attempting significant policy change, we freeze. That’s something that some of the leaders who accomplished the most — Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan — have understood throughout our history.

Indeed, it’s worth asking a pragmatic political question: Does Biden not realize that his paeans to unity will soon enough be gleefully thrown in his face if and when the Senate resorts to tiebreaker reconciliation to force major policy changes through over Republican opposition? One man’s demand for unity is another man’s excuse for inertia.

The most charitable interpretation is that by talking about unity, Biden really means we need the vast majority of Americans — and therefore their representatives — to believe that we’re not out to hurt one another, to agree to operate within the system, to subscribe to more or less the same sets of facts so that we can argue in good faith, and even argue raucously, about our differences. And we simultaneously must find better ways to tune out and relegate to the fringes the burn-it-all-down radicals, those who subscribe to QAnon, who believe against all evidence that the election was stolen and so on.

In other words, when Biden talks about unity, I think he really means civility, which is to say, we need to be able to work together just well enough to actually arrive at and implement close-enough-to-consensus solutions to our vexing challenges, rather than constantly questioning one another’s legitimacy and motives.

That’s a more reasonable assertion, and I don’t blame any president for wanting to put the country on steadier footing, particularly after four years of Donald Trump gratuitously and irresponsibly ginning up his base, capped by the siege on the Capitol. It is possible we can build a more civil nation with more understanding and less caricature of one another if we bust out of our internet-created bubbles and work together in real life. A national service program that actually mixes people from different backgrounds might help. It surely would be more pleasant, if less exciting, to live inside a PBS or NPR nation than a Fox News or CNN nation.

But even civility itself is overrated when applied to the general population. Civility is indeed important on the floor of the House and Senate or in the Supreme Court, where individuals who work together every day must find ways to communicate without turning the other into “the other.” But we the people have always shouted at one another. That shouting isn’t altogether unhealthy; it’s how people express themselves, trying to be seen and heard and respected despite our sometimes unbridgeable differences. It’s often in response to the impassioned, uncivil shouting of one group that government, otherwise prone to balance interests and maintain the status quo, finally answers a call.

What we should instead hope for and expect is a nation in which we respect one another enough to listen, then return to our respective corners with a healthy understanding of our political foes. That’s not called unity. It’s not even called civility. It’s called functioning democracy.

— Josh Greenman is the New York Daily News editorial page editor and oversees the paper's op-ed page.