Unity, compromise, and politics

Joe Biden mentioned unity nine times in his inauguration speech yesterday. Then he signed 17 executive orders undoing actions of President Trump. Is this unity?

Representative Liz Cheney doesn’t think so. “We face significant challenges that require bipartisan responses,” she wrote in a statement. “Today’s Executive Orders reverse important policies and impose significant economic cost that will imperil our recovery.” She joined many other Republicans criticizing Biden’s moves on his first day.

What, exactly is the unity that Biden is speaking of, and is it incompatible with partisan politics?

What unity is

Unity is not agreeing to everything the other side says. It is not (necessarily) compromise.

Unity starts with the idea of shared values. Without shared values as a starting point, there can be no unity.

What shared values? How about these?

  • Democracy is central to how America operates.
  • We start from the Constitution and build from there.
  • Violence is not the way to get things done.
  • Extending the quality and length of people’s lives is part of the what government should do.
  • America is a land of free enterprise, and whenever possible, its government and laws should support people’s desire to work, create, and build.
  • All citizens have a right to be here and to have a voice. We don’t discriminate based on race, gender, or religious beliefs.
  • We should strive to treat people with dignity.
  • Government has a role in some things that help America thrive — for example, interstate highways and ensuring safe banking and investment systems — and should stay out of other things.
  • Facts and truth exist — some things happened and others didn’t.
  • Disagreement is a key part of how we govern.

If you are liberal or conservative, a Trump voter or a Biden voter or a Bernie voter or a libertarian or a democratic socialist, you should be able to agree on this list. I don’t think Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders would disagree with Joe Biden that these things are important.

There are a lot of details, and we can argue over those. We can argue about how much money the government should spend. We can argue the best strategy with which to fight the virus. We can argue what controls make sense on guns, how much the government should help the poor, what regulations business must comply with, how we should enforce border protection, what actions should we take about racial discrimination, or how we should engage with the other countries in the world. And we will argue about those things. With a Congress split so evenly and a nation so polarized, such arguments are inevitable.

Elections have consequences. We have a new party in power and a new chief executive. It is within the President’s power to decide whether to rejoin the World Health Organization and whether to ban travel from Muslim-majority countries. Expecting Joe Biden to check in with Republicans before undoing the policies of his predecessor is hypocritical. (Where were the calls for unity for the last four years? In the last two weeks?) These orders do not create unity, but they do not forestall it, either. That’s just politics.

So where is the unity?

It has to do with two things.

First, as Biden said, “I will be a president for all Americans.” That means that the decisions the President makes and the actions he takes will acknowledge the well-being of all, including those who didn’t vote for him. This is the contrast with the statements of policies of former President Trump, who constantly belittled and demonized anyone who disagreed with him. And it’s different as well from Hillary Clinton’s characterization of so many Republicans as “deplorables.” You may disagree with how Biden is moving forward with governing, but it shouldn’t seem as if he doesn’t give a crap about anybody but loyal Democrats. In Biden’s America — if he lives up to his promise — there are not blue cities and red rural areas, he is the President of everyone.

Second, the shared principles mean that there is room for policies that stem from areas of agreement.

People want COVID-19 vaccines delivered efficiently throughout the nation. Build on that.

People want the economy back on its feet. Build on that.

People want health-care policy that actually works and doesn’t bankrupt the people using it. Build on that.

Three-quarters of Americans said that more needs to be done about gun violence, and most gun owners would support some licensing. Build on that.

In some cases this would require a compromise on numbers (do we pay people $500 or $2000 in economic recovery payments?). But in most cases, this requires creative thinking in how to combine ideas from people who disagree to create policies that serve the needs of people of differing opinions.

Biden is the President. That gives him power. The Senate has a filibuster, which creates power for the 50 Republicans in it.

“Unity” does not mean suspending politics. It means engaging in politics. Polarized and dug-in positions mean nothing gets done. Engagement means something does — not everything you want, and not everything you hate, but something useful.

Biden appears ready to ignore the injuries of the past and to treat Republicans as the “loyal opposition” — to negotiate in good faith, neither yielding to the minority nor demonizing it. Given how many Republicans objected to the certification of the election, this is quite an example of turning the other cheek.

This attempt may yet fail. So long as politics is about scoring points and our media and social media are driving us to hate each other in separate realities, it certainly may fail.

But it may yet succeed.

To be honest, the future of our nation depends on it.

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  1. I think the right to clean air, water, and soil needs to be added to our shared values. And that federal lands belong to this country’s citizenry to preserve our natural wonders and not to a few to exploit for personal gain. A great, thought-provoking post, as usual.

  2. There is so much complexity buried in some of those values. Especially, “Government has a role in some things that help America thrive — for example, interstate highways and ensuring safe banking and investment systems — and should stay out of other things.” Does it have a role in dismantling systemic discrimination? Both infrastructure and banking have historically been built to serve some better than others. And “violence” comes in many forms, from micro-aggressions to murder. Do we all share the same definition? And where does my definition of respect meaning no one can inflict their religious values on me bump up against someone else’s belief that their religious freedom is not being respected if they have to treat all humans with decency? The devil, as always, is in the details!

  3. Well structured and spot on, as usual. I’ll make one observation here: consider the source. Liz Cheney is under fire and this was an easy way for her to try to mend fences with the radical right Republicans by making a gesture in their direction. It won’t help – they are already “primarying” her. But it’s worth at least looking through that lens in considering her comments. As you say, “engaging in politics.” Stake out a position and start talking….

  4. LOL . . . the people who trumped up a Russia investigation, that was false, then attempted a coup based on a phone all, that failed, and then a politician who committed the EXACT same crime they accused the President of, is elected President, and you’re asking for “UNITY”??? Really?

    Yes. We all want unity.

    It’s just a little bit disingenuous to ask for it now after four years of bashing and three coup attempts!


    *** I realize you corrected me on my comment on Joe Biden’s Quid Pro Quo with Ukraine, so, here’s the actual words from the man’s own mouth. https://youtu.be/vCSF3reVr10

  5. “If you are liberal or conservative, a Trump voter or a Biden voter or a Bernie voter or a libertarian or a democratic socialist, you should be able to agree on this list. ”
    Sadly, based on actions and words, there is not agreement on these values, nor are there shared definitions, as Liz B. noted. There is disagreement on the role of government, and even the centrality of democracy. By all means, give bipartisanship a chance, but don’t count on it.