I’m getting awfully sick and tired of political leaders telling us how much they want to unite the country, and then jamming through their unpopular agenda items by any means necessary.
You can’t give grandiose speeches about how your preeminent priority is to bring Americans together, and then by executive order decide that taxpayers will be on the hook for $300 billion in unpaid student loans — a sum that comes out to about $2,000 per taxpayer — by invoking a post-9/11 law that allows for debt cancelation “in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency.” This is a grotesque abuse of the authority of the executive branch; if the law stands, it will only be because the Supreme Court can’t decide who has the legal standing to challenge the decision.
It is as if many of our elected leaders don’t see any connection between how they approach their roles and duties and the country’s political and social divisions. You can’t approach the job of governing with an “I’m going to do this, and you guys just try and stop me” attitude, and then be surprised that the country is growing angrier and more divided on your watch. Angry divisions are the direct consequences of choices you deliberately made.
Way back on January 20, 2021, Joe Biden took the oath of office and pledged that his whole soul was dedicated to the task of uniting the American people:
To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.
Unity . . . my whole soul is in it. Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness. With unity we can do great things. Important things. . . .
History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury.
And then, in the following months and years, Biden passed most of his agenda with only Democratic votes in an evenly divided Senate — with a few exceptions such as the infrastructure bill. He contended that those who supported an election-reform law in Georgia stood with George Wallace, Bull Connor, and Jefferson Davis, and stood against Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Abraham Lincoln. (That election-reform law led to higher voter turnout, including higher turnout among minorities.) He declared that, “This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that has existed in American history.” (The Weather Underground — which claimed credit for 25 bombing attacks on targets including the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the California Attorney General’s office, and a New York City police station — could not be reached for comment.) He contended that the 2022 midterm elections could be illegitimate because they were conducted under election-reform laws he opposed.
Does this sound like seeing others as neighbors, not as adversaries? Does this sound like treating others with dignity and respect? Does this sound like peace, instead of bitterness and fury?
Biden’s job approval bobbling along in the high 30s and low 40s for so long is a strong indicator that he has not been that grand unifying force he envisioned himself being.
When most politicians call for unity, what they often mean is that everyone should unite behind what they want to do. Their vision of unity is everyone falling in line behind the leader’s will and agenda. They’re saying “unite,” but what they really mean is “submit.”
But that’s not the way genuine unity works. A free society is rarely if ever going to be a united society because freedom of thought and freedom of expression are almost synonyms for division. The day Americans are united on most of our current controversial domestic issues — abortion, tax rates, the correct level of government spending — is the day we have all become reprogrammed automatons.
Genuine unity is nearly impossible, but what is achievable with a better, wiser mindset is compromise and consensus — circumstances that leave few Americans truly thrilled about the decisions and outcomes, but almost everyone satisfied, or at least not deliberately antagonized. You can envision a consensus on abortion that leaves it legal in the first trimester and provides exceptions for rape, incest, and the life and the mother, but otherwise bans it, with no taxpayer funding for it under any circumstances. Few activists on either side would be happy with that compromise, but it would be closer to that old Democratic Party adage of “safe, legal, and rare.”
The blunt truth is that Americans are most united when we face an outside threat, and a near-universal recognition of that outside threat usually only happens after it has manifested some terrible consequences — like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
A lot of our modern politics consists of two sides, one insisting that something is a significant and worsening threat, and the opposition insisting that the fears are overblown. Democrats think Republicans are in denial about the threats posed by climate change, racism, economic inequality, white nationalist terrorism, callous and counterproductive aspects of the criminal-justice system, vaccine skepticism, microaggressions, and incorrect pronouns. Republicans think Democrats are in denial about the threats posed by illegal immigrants with malevolent intentions, Islamist terrorism and states like Iran, violent criminals, sprawling and unresponsive bureaucracies, the national debt, the ticking time bomb of entitlement programs, and those who intend to shape the sexuality of young people for their own purposes.
Every once in a while, both the Left and the Right find some areas of agreement on things such as the threat from big corporations, the Chinese Communist Party, or Vladimir Putin.
Note that on the issue of student-loan debt, Biden’s so-called solution does nothing to address the root of the problem of extremely high tuition rates and graduates who find themselves making significantly less in their jobs than they expected. (That problem is probably worsening; one survey this year found students in college “now expect to make $103,880 in their first job after graduation.” The average starting salary is currently around $55,000.)
Jason Furman, who spent eight years as a top economic adviser to President Obama, is attempting to sound the alarm:
Pouring roughly half trillion dollars of gasoline on the inflationary fire that is already burning is reckless. Doing it while going well beyond one campaign promise ($10K of student loan relief) and breaking another (all proposals paid for) is even worse.
Then again, about 14 months after Biden told America that his whole soul was dedicated to the goal of bringing Americans together, Biden pledged to Americans that, “I have made tackling inflation my top economic priority.” At the time, it was 8.6 percent; since then, it has come in at 9.1 percent and 8.5 percent.