Come Together?

Why and when Americans should resist the siren calls for unity and bipartisanship

Image Credit: John Lund/Getty Images

“It’s time for America to unite.” So President-elect Biden has been telling the nation in recent weeks, including in a Thanksgiving address that emphasized the need “to come together and work together.” To be sure, unity is usually a good thing. Nobody likes divisiveness or disunity for its own sake. But in the coming months there is a danger that U.S. policymakers won’t come together around the right issues but will “unite” to work together on the wrong ones.

The degree of polarization in America is severe—“exceptional,” according to the Pew Research Center. In the run-up to the presidential election, says Pew, some 90% of Biden’s supporters and 89% of Donald Trump’s supporters said a victory by the other candidate would result in “lasting harm” to the United States. In the wake of this kind of polarization, calls to “heal” the nation will likely intensify.

Such calls are nothing new from political winners, of course. History provides examples of effective leaders who famously appealed for unity. “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” Abraham Lincoln declared in his Second Inaugural Address, concluding with “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Quoting St. Francis of Assisi, Margaret Thatcher expressed a similar sentiment on the occasion of her May 1979 election victory in Britain. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony,” the new prime minister famously proclaimed outside 10 Downing Street.

Incoming presidents and other elected officials often express a commitment to unity and reconciliation—to working for all constituents whether they voted for them or not. It’s a good sentiment, and sometimes it may even be sincere. Appealing to those who did not give you their support at the election makes sense politically and sometimes enables a leader to more effectively build coalitions and govern.

In addition, there have been notable examples of “good bipartisanship” among U.S. policymakers. These include not only welfare reform legislation and the balanced budgets in the 1990s, but the 2011 Budget Control Act and the 2013 fiscal cliff deal. More recently, we have also seen unprecedented bipartisan regulatory reform at the state level in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, this past spring Mercatus scholar Robert Graboyes declared he had seen more delivery system innovation in one 25-day period than in his previous 25 years of health care research. As he put it, “Desperate times call for sensible measures.”

However, the likelihood now is that appeals to unity will lead to a bipartisanship of a different sort. True, it may not be around the Green New Deal, court packing or the other more extreme elements of the progressive agenda. But it will still be around bigger, more intrusive government—increased levels of spending, regulation, subsidies and corporate cronyism.

Spenders of the World Unite

Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute has calculated that the spending agenda laid out by Biden during the campaign could increase the federal government’s spending by an additional $11 trillion over the next 10 years. Now, Republicans may object to some of the items in the plan, such as expanding the Affordable Care Act, reducing Medicare eligibility to the age of 60 and raising spending on climate issues. But there are other areas that may well have across-the-aisle appeal, such as infrastructure spending and farm subsidies. After all, there is ample evidence that Republicans (whether in Congress or the administration) are often more than willing to go along with big government spending.

Citing political necessity, in 2013 House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan opted to make a reckless budget deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. Prior to the pandemic, annual government spending under President Trump was $1 trillion higher than it had been in President Obama’s last year in office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already let it be known that a future COVID-relief bill will probably include federal bailouts for fiscally strapped states and other favorite provisions of the Democrats.

“Last Refuge of the Scoundrel”

Trump protectionism has raised barriers to trade that have increased prices for consumers without delivering on their promise of restoring U.S. manufacturing jobs. Now his “America First” trade agenda may be followed by a Biden “Buy American” campaign. This would involve tightening current laws regulating the government’s purchase of goods and services from American manufacturing and technology firms.

As usual with such initiatives, “Buy American” comes with a price tag. It would require U.S. taxpayer support amounting to more than $700 billion. Biden has said the new campaign would deliver—by cutting U.S. dependence on foreign manufactured goods, spurring innovation by domestic corporations and helping to create 5 million more jobs in the United States.

Republicans are already being urged to back the Biden initiative. “Buying American will surely cost taxpayers more for the same goods,” acknowledges Henry Olsen, a former scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But as he sees it, that’s a price worth paying. His rationale? “It sends a signal to U.S.-based companies that they need to balance political concerns and cost when making decisions about where to locate factories.”

In case you skimmed over it, read that last “call to cronyism” sentence again and consider the implications. American companies are being urged to focus on satisfying the preferences of the government rather than meeting the needs of customers in the market. By the same token, the federal government is being encouraged to pick winners and losers in the economy, which it does to the detriment of the U.S. economy, consumers and non–special interests.

Will Republicans go along with such efforts? Unfortunately, the GOP has a long history of doing so. Take the case of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank provides government-backed financing to big, politically connected export companies at the expense of thousands of smaller businesses and millions of American taxpayers. (In 2014 some 40% of Ex-Im’s activities benefited Boeing, earning it the label “Boeing’s Bank.”) Subsidizing these firms over their unsubsidized competitors does little to promote exports, create jobs or improve the efficiency of U.S. firms. Yet the Ex-Im Bank, a New Deal–era relic, has always enjoyed bipartisan support.

That support was most recently put to the test in late 2019, when the Ex-Im Bank was up for reauthorization by Congress. It passed with overwhelming and bipartisan backing. Indeed, Christmas came early for the Ex-Im Bank last year. “President Donald J. Trump signed legislation today that reauthorized the Export-Import Bank of the United States for a historic length of seven years,” the agency announced on Dec. 20.

A Virtue Out of Necessity

Government spending. Trade protectionism. Corporate cronyism. All in all, it appears there may well be considerable bipartisanship and unity on the political horizon. Of course, if the GOP retains control of the Senate, Biden may find he has no choice but to work with the other side. Chances are, when it comes to securing agreements over bad ideas, he may not have to work too hard.

In the months ahead there are better things for Americans to unify over, such as respect for one another, tolerance of other points of view, equality under the law and a belief in the dignity of all people. These are long-standing, shared American values. They are what can truly bring us together.

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