One of the local papers picked up an op-ed from Cathy Young yesterday in which the Reason magazine writer (i.e., a libertarian) criticized presidents from both major parties for making misplaced calls for national unity. In Young's view, George W. Bush had no business claiming or aspiring to be a "uniter," and may as well have been asking to be called a hypocrite. The current President is likewise out of bounds, Young suggests, in his groping for a "story" that would give Americans a "sense of unity." For Young, the point isn't that unity is a bad thing, but that it's impossible in a free society -- though this depends on what you mean by unity.
Young seems to take any call for "unity" as a revival of 18th century civic republicanism, the still-disputed ideology rediscovered (or invented) by 20th century historians. Civic republicanism was all about public virtue. To the extent that the Founders or Framers were civic republicans, they believed that their experiment in republican government depended upon a virtuous citizenry whose virtue was defined by their commitment to public goods. Unity of purpose is implicit in civic republicanism, but as Young writes, the Framers understood that virtue could not be depended upon. Ideal unity proves chimerical once people start acting to advance their own interests, whether these harm the public good or not. Madison's system was designed to allow a multitude of interest groups to counterbalance each other, so that no one interest could prevail without making concessions to others. It may be because a two-party system has effectively demolished pluralism's inherent check on interest that people today decry a spirit of factionalism in tones the Founders would recognize. But if Bipolarchy represents the spirit of faction the Framers hoped to drown in pluralism, would a reversion to civic republican insistence on public-spirited unity solve the problem?
Young notes that "There is an alarming tendency today to see the other half as evil or delusional," but adds a note of historical skepticism. "It’s hard to say whether polarization is worse today than ever," she writes, "or just
seems that way because the Internet has given people unprecedented
opportunities to express their views and confirm their biases." However bad things have gotten, Young's preferred solution is "civility" rather than "unity." Civility is a fine thing, as is that "willingness to at least listen to the other side" that Young hopes for. Yet her apparent aversion to "unity" is misguided. I suspect she sees "unity" as an ideologically loaded term, just as some see civic republicanism as the first step on a slippery slope to totalitarianism because of its alleged preference of public to private. Unity doesn't have to be a synonym for collectivism, however, and some people's tendency to equate the two may be a big part of our civility problem right now. "Unity" doesn't have to mean that we all pull together on some huge national project, chanting slogans all the while. It doesn't mean we all have to affirm the same national ideology. What any nation needs is a sort of minimal sense of unity best embodied, if you don't mind me sounding partisan for a second, by the President's familiar talking point that "we're all in this together." The opposite stance, in his characterization, is "you're on your own." Many people may say that this contrast misrepresents what they mean by emphasizing "personal responsibility," but this is where Young's call for civility really comes in. It is important for citizens to listen to each other, but that makes it even more important for people to speak their minds clearly and honestly. Many people have convinced themselves that "personal responsibility" is just a buzzword meaning, "I don't have to give a damn whether you live or die." If that's not what people mean when they talk of personal responsibility, maybe people will listen more carefully if you skip the buzzwords and say what you really mean. At the same time, let's acknowledge the stakes. If a large number of Americans really do think that they needn't give a damn if others suffer or die in poverty, that may prove the absence of the minimal unity on which national existence arguably depends. Where such an attitude prevails, why even have a nation? Despite Young's skepticism, a certain degree of unity is not too much to ask.