Divided We Stand: Why We Must Resist Political 'Unity'
This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.
We hear a lot about “unity” these days. The Biden administration promises and even demands it. Meanwhile, Republicans (and some Democrats) charge the administration with hypocrisy because its radical programs can’t garner a legislative majority — let alone the consensus support the word “unity” implies. But the charge of hypocrisy misses the point: The demand for unity is dangerous because it aims to undermine the genuine diversity that is essential to a free people.
To call for unity is, in effect, to call for obedience. But free people are not obedient. Free people should obey the law, of course, but they do so only because they have consented to the law. And before consent comes debate: Free people air differing opinions that reflect their differing backgrounds and experiences, rather than bowing to those who claim they know what’s best. Free and open debate — and the diversity of viewpoint such debate implies — is therefore essential to lawmaking in a democratic republic.
This is our constitutional inheritance. Our lawmaking process is structured by mechanisms — such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, and lesser rules like the Senate filibuster — that ensure the views of the minority are not simply brushed aside by a fleeting political majority. Of course, from time to time, Americans do come together as one nation, for instance in the face of great tragedies or crises. Yet, unfortunately, such crises can easily be exploited or manipulated to stifle dissent and centralize political power.
To fight this homogenizing tendency, we must reassert who we are as Americans: free citizens belonging to a wide variety of communities and associations, who can and should be heard in the public square.
Whatever the ideologues of identity politics may claim, America was not founded by “white people.” It was settled by English Puritans and Quakers, German pietists, Swedish and Irish peasants, and Scottish adventurers, to name a few, who found themselves enmeshed in the conflicts of Algonquians, Iroquois, and other native peoples. These settlers formed insular religious communities as well as polyglot commercial towns. Some bought slaves taken by force from what are now Ghana, Nigeria, and other nations of Africa. All of these peoples made America.
One of slavery’s many evils was its presumption that black skin made one an indistinguishable part of a monolithic group, without full human personality and agency. But slavery could not erase humanity. Enslaved people continued to forge diverse relationships, often rooted in common ties going back to specific regions in Africa. And slavery could not take away people’s natural drive to protect their own families and communities. As soon as emancipation came, freed slaves by the hundreds of thousands took to the roads to find lost family and community members, seeking to strengthen ties not even slavery could break.
To reduce the variety of communities that shaped — and continue to shape — Americans of all races is to deny our full humanity.
Communities are where we live, attend school and church, work and play, come together to protect our neighborhoods, and organize everything from charity drives to Easter Egg Hunts. They are where we suffer from nature’s fury, from outbreaks of disease to natural disasters, and grapple with socioeconomic changes, from drug abuse to crime to factory closings to demographic shifts. Simply put, communities are where we work to maintain, adapt, and rebuild our ways of life in the face of various challenges. Different circumstances, from geography and climate to economic realities and religious and ethnic heritage, shape communities in different ways. All of these communities — and the people belonging to them — are American, but they have different wants, needs, and points of view.
Traditionally, Americans dealt with diversity through local self-government, leaving the state or federal government to decide only on general issues of national concern. This allowed Americans to keep the peace within and among our communities. As with all peoples, there have been tragedies and injustices in our history, most notably slavery. But the freedom implied by self-government has not only allowed Americans to organize their own lives in their own ways. It has also provided Americans with a developed moral sense — one that propelled the movement for emancipation from slavery.
The Framers of our Constitution understood that self-government is freedom and that the concentration of power into one set of hands is tyranny. They understood that presidents must execute laws passed by Congress, not issue executive decrees with the force of law. They understood that courts must protect the laws, especially the higher law of the Constitution, rather than rewrite them. They understood that our nation is a community of communities — that policy and law must grow from the locality up to the nation, not the other way around.
This federal understanding of self-government is reflected in constitutional mechanisms that are peculiar to American politics but universal in their purpose. Thus, for example, we choose senators by state rather than any national ideological platform. And we choose presidents, not by a national popular vote — which would hand power to a few highly urbanized states — but through the Electoral College, which represents the interests of urban, rural, industrial, agricultural, and commercial regions alike. This is not the politics of “unity,” but of shifting coalitions of diverse communities, designed to check the power of a centralized, national government.
Our Constitution contains no national religion or ideology beyond commitment to ordered liberty. It recognizes people’s need to cultivate the habits of a free people by acting within their own localities. Only in local communities, with their own churches, local governments, and voluntary associations can people become good citizens, good men, women, fathers, mothers, and neighbors.
Recent events in cities like Portland and Minneapolis may make it hard to believe that decent, local government is still possible. But the violence in these cities — like the conflicts in our country as a whole — may be partly explained by the erosion of community. When we nationalize our politics, we simplify the challenges we face and ignore the differences among us. Politics becomes a matter of grand, ideological schemes and mechanisms of control, rather than protecting communities and seeking common goods through our local associations and attachments.
Today, rather than yield to demands for “unity,” we must fight to restore a politics of community. The federal government should protect, not replace, the fundamental associations of a free people. Their politics are based in hard-won compromises, which respect the fundamental character of our nation and link together — without eliminating — the diverse associations that together comprise this community of communities.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University. His latest book, with Ted V. McAllister, is “Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul.”