Opinion | What Unity?
As the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to impeach Donald Trump for a second time, some Republicans argued that such a move — a constitutional obligation, really — was unnecessarily divisive at a time when the nation should be healing and proposing unity.
The irony is that this plea is being made by many of the same legislators who just last week were supportive of Trump’s scheme to fraudulently overturn the results of a free and fair election, thereby disenfranchising millions of voters who formed the majority of the electorate.
But, beyond that, whenever I hear politicians appealing for unity, I am befuddled. What do they mean by “unity”? What does “unity” mean to America?
Yes, America can be unified in pride or defense. But unity doesn’t always exist, even when our country is attacked, or when we are engaged in war.
Support for the American Revolution was by no means universal, and at one point, failing to entice enough recruits for the rebellion among white colonists, the government began to enlist thousands of Black ones, a move it had resisted.
Resistance to the wars in Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan is well known and somewhat entrenched. In the case of the Vietnam War, for instance, the percentage of people who believed that the United States did the right thing by fighting in Vietnam has remained below a quarter of the population, according to polling. If anything, America is united against the government’s approach to the war.
We may think that something like an international competition and accomplishment would rally and unify the country. Not necessarily. Looking back on the space race of the 1960s with hagiographic hindsight, one would think that most Americans were cheering on the effort. They weren’t. As Gallup points out:
“In most polls conducted by Gallup during the 1960s, less than a majority of Americans said that the investment in getting a man to the moon was worth the cost. For example, a 1965 poll found only 39 percent of Americans thought that the U.S. should do everything possible, regardless of cost, to be the first nation on the moon.”
At times a sense of national unity and community exists when America is attacked — like on 9/11 — when there is a national disaster — like Hurricane Katrina — or when there is a national tragedy — like the shooting at Sandy Hook.
But once the politicians become involved — or don’t — the divisions that exist become more evident. After 9/11, politicians lied us into America’s longest war. After Katrina, the federal response was too slow and anemic, and people died as a result. After Sandy Hook there was much talk about new gun control measures, but few materialized.
Many people frame the ideas of division and unity around political polarization, which has grown in recent years. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in November:
“A month before the election, roughly eight in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine in 10 — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”
But this seems understandable to me. Political polarization has increased as the percentage of nonwhite people in America has increased. So, as identity politics takes on more of a central role in politics — Republicans electing a white-power president after Democrats elected a Black one — it stands to reason that there would be a strain.
By the way, America is expected to be equal halves white and nonwhite by 2045.
I don’t object to this form of division at all. I don’t want to be unified with anyone who could openly cheer my oppression or sit silently while I endure it.
Furthermore, equality in America has a history of being divisive — from freeing the enslaved, to recognizing Black citizenship and granting Black suffrage, to expanding women’s suffrage, to establishing Reconstruction, to establishing and then abolishing Jim Crow, to our present state of criminal justice and mass incarceration.
People now regularly invoke names like Martin Luther King Jr. when talking about equality, as if there was always a consensus around the issue, as if he wasn’t incredibly unpopular, particularly among conservatives, when he was alive. A Gallup poll taken just two years before King was assassinated found that only a third of Americans had a favorable opinion of him.
Some people point to Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address when talking about how to unify a country across differences. Lincoln closes the speech by saying:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
What they don’t say is that in that same speech, he expressed support for the Fugitive Slave Act as a way of showing conciliation to Southern slavers.
For this Frederick Douglass blasted Lincoln as an “excellent slave hound” and the “most dangerous advocate of slave-hunting and slave-catching in the land.”
It seems to me, the “unity” of America is often conflated with the silence of the oppressed and the pacification of the oppressors.
As long as you can put your foot on my neck without the protestations of your neighbors or the wails of my pain, America is happy. That, to America, is unity: quiet capitulation.
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