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When Political Unity Becomes the Goal, Our Democracy Suffers
By Robert B. Talisse
The message that politics has become toxic resonates with American voters across the political spectrum. It’s no wonder, then, that both parties have recently appealed to unity as a central political goal. Unity has been a theme of Joe Biden’s presidency, from his inauguration speech to recent remarks about preserving the filibuster. On the Republican side, Rep. Elise Stefanik emphasized unity in accepting her appointment to a GOP House leadership post, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized the formation of the Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, arguing that it will inflame divisions.
Unity talk is potent, but talk is cheap. Unity’s value isn’t clear until those promoting it identify what it is and why it’s valuable. Neither party seems keen to define unity precisely; however, there appear to be two distinct ideas of unity at work. It’s worth clarifying them because, although both kinds of unity are of value, neither is a worthy political objective.
Unity To Promote Bipartisan Cooperation
When President Biden calls for unity, he is talking broadly about bipartisan cooperation and the easing of partisan animosity. Accordingly, he typically contrasts the unity he seeks to forge with a depiction of our current political condition. As Biden sees it, our democracy is foundering because political partisans see those on the other side as enemies to be defeated rather than merely opponents who can work across the aisle to enact sound policies.
The thought driving Biden’s appeal to unity is that democracy requires that our political divisions be contained within a broader commitment to the basic ideals of a self-governing republic. On such a view, we can still play politics to win, but we must play according to a shared set of rules and values. “Winning” in politics is therefore a lot like winning in sports or boardgames—there can be a winner only when everyone is playing the same game. The political competition among opposed partisans must be structured by procedures and norms that are upheld by all.
Biden is largely correct here: Self-government requires that citizens and officials share background commitments that define the bounds of their political disputes. Mutual acceptance of these commitments enables us to see those with whom we disagree as opponents rather than enemies.
However, Biden’s tendency to talk as if unity is the aim of politics is misguided and counterproductive. That’s because not everything that’s necessary for the health of a democracy can be the explicit aim of democratic politics. This is because some good things, including unity, can be pursued only indirectly, achieved only by way of something else.
A simple example of this is fun. It’s good to have fun. But we have fun by way of other activities —we play a game, ride a rollercoaster, listen to a joke, and so on. When having fun becomes the point of our activity, we detract from its enjoyment. What’s more, the surest way to bring fun to a halt is to stop to ask, “Are we having fun?”
Friendship provides another instructive example. It’s undoubtedly good to have friends. But what’s more off-putting than someone who sees making friends as the direct aim of his interpersonal interactions? Treating friendship as the goal of social engagements is counterproductive—it seems forced (because it is) and it alienates people. We make friends by interacting with others for reasons other than befriending them. We might say that fun and friendship are byproducts of other cooperative endeavors.
Biden’s kind of unity is also a byproduct. Bipartisan cooperation can be restored by building coalitions, identifying points on which compromise is possible, and presenting to the opposition a principled rationale for one’s policy objectives. None of these activities has unity as its explicit objective; rather, they aim at something else, namely cogent politics.
Moreover, urging unity becomes counterproductive when the political landscape is already marred by the kind of deep partisan hostilities that Biden routinely laments. In presenting unity as a central political aim, Biden casts the restoration of the fundamental workings of a stable democracy as a partisan win. Those who are opposed to his politics are left with the suspicion that in calling for “unity,” Biden is in fact demanding capitulation. As a result, good-faith opposition to Biden is hardened and entrenched, while those friendly to Biden’s politics grow increasingly disposed to see their opponents as enemies of democracy.
In short, although Biden’s kind of unity is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy, in all but a few cases, his call for unity has backfired. If we are indeed already disposed to see the other side as enemies rather than opponents, a president’s urging of unity can only divide us further.
Unity To Promote Partisan Cohesion
In accepting her role as House Republican Conference chair, Stefanik articulated a different conception of unity. In her usage, unity means accord within a political party rather than between political parties. Stefanik hence affirmed her role as the replacement of her predecessor, Liz Cheney, who remains a relentless public critic of Donald Trump and his behavior on Jan. 6. To solidify her distinction from Cheney, Stefanik ended her remarks by thanking Trump, who she identified as a “crucial part” of the GOP team.
The idea here is that political parties need to present a cohesive agenda to their voters. To do that they must present a unified front. Internal divisions, especially when they’re made public, dilute the party’s messaging. This in turn weakens the party’s political prospects. If a democracy is to flourish, voters must be able to discern the leading political parties’ distinctive commitments, values and agendas. Public internal turmoil muddies the water, thereby undermining the party’s electoral objectives.
This view about the importance of partisan unity is correct. And it’s important to note that it applies beyond political parties. The political efficacy of social movements and political coalitions of all kinds depends largely on cohesion among the members. After all, to have an effective democratic voice, one needs to join a chorus of similarly minded citizens; and a chorus must, to some extent, sing the same song.
Yet trouble looms. Like its bipartisan counterpart, partisan unity unravels when it is adopted as an aim. When pursued as a goal, rather than regarded as a byproduct, coalitions begin to splinter and shrink. Unity once again proves counterproductive.
Here’s why. Partisan cohesion involves something beyond unity to promote political principles and policy ideas; it also requires a commitment to cohesion itself. But when a party circles the wagons in this way, it must specify a center around which to unify, and then define itself in terms of fidelity to the aim of preserving the circle.
However, as I document in my forthcoming book “Sustaining Democracy,” when groups adopt fidelity to group cohesion as necessary for authentic membership, they begin to splinter. As groups “circle the wagons,” they become increasingly invested in maintaining the border between those within the circle and those outside. This often takes the form of policing their ranks for poseurs. The goal of partisan unity hence transforms into a demand for doctrinal conformity. Purity and loyalty to the group itself take center stage within the group. Consequently, those who deviate from the dominant conception of the group’s core are disciplined, stifled or expelled.
Thanks to a tendency known as belief polarization, the absence of healthy internal disagreement leads the group to shift toward more extreme beliefs and attitudes. This in turn encourages more intensely negative feelings toward those who are not associated with the group. Moreover, belief polarized groups are especially susceptible to the Black Sheep Effect, which means that the group will tend to hold its own lapsed and expelled members in greater contempt than members of opposing groups. What’s more, our more extreme selves are also more conformist. Thus belief polarization leads the group to become more dependent on a central authority to provide the official interpretation of the group’s defining character.
This dynamic is now evident in the Republican Party. Cheney was ousted from her position of leadership despite being more conservative than the average Republican House member and having a record of reliably voting for President Trump’s legislative agenda. By contrast, Stefanik is less conservative than Cheney, but she is a Trump loyalist who claims to be committed to keeping the GOP on message. As one would expect, part of that message has to do with disassociating from noncompliant Republicans. Hence the term “Pelosi Republican,” which is now applied to unrepentant Trump critics within the party. Of course, a “Pelosi Republican” is no Republican at all. But this very coinage punctuates internal divisions within the party, and provides deviating members an occasion to further publicize those divisions.
The result is that when partisan unity is treated as a party goal, it alienates all but the most loyal hardliners, provokes internal turmoil and eventually shrinks the group. Yet political success requires parties to build their coalitions and expand their membership. Consequently, when partisan unity is embraced as an electoral strategy, it undermines itself.
Too Much of a Good Thing
As already noted, political unity is good: A healthy democracy needs bipartisan cooperation as well as partisan cohesion. But not all good things in politics should be adopted as political goals. Some goods are byproducts of other endeavors—such as a desire to achieve policy goals or to win elections. And when byproduct goods are taken up as direct aims, they become undone.
Lest this seem but a minor philosophical point about the nature of certain goods, consider a more general point. On either side, the appeal to unity embeds an implicit critique of the current state of our politics. Pleas for unity call attention to a perceived political deficit. Of course, democracy needs critique of this kind. It’s not clear, though, that major political parties and their leaders are the appropriate critics. After all, their central job is to govern. As things stand, though, they seem to spend a lot of time publicly pronouncing on the broken state of democracy itself and strategizing about how they can fix it. But maybe the best thing officeholders can do to restore our democracy is to leave the political commentary to others and focus on governing.