Against Unity

President Joe Biden gives his inaugural address in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/Reuters Pool)

Biden’s inaugural address emphasized ‘unity,’ but disagreement, debate, and competition are the American way.

Sign in here to read more.

Biden’s inaugural address emphasized ‘unity,’ but disagreement, debate, and competition are the American way.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE J oe Biden, giving an inaugural address so forgettable that he himself seemed to have forgotten much of it, emphasized the need for “unity.”

He is not the first with the unity talk. Barack Obama talked up unity in his 2009 inaugural, insisting that Americans must choose “unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Donald Trump was not famous for his enthusiasm for unity, but he nodded to it: “We are one nation,” etc. Ronald Reagan valorized the American public as a whole: “You have shown a watching world that we are a united people.” Dwight Eisenhower began with the prayer

Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere

and then moved on to the unity business, at home and abroad: “The strength of all free peoples lies in unity. . . . In Europe, we ask that enlightened and inspired leaders of the Western nations strive with renewed vigor to make the unity of their peoples a reality. Only as free Europe unitedly marshals its strength can it effectively safeguard, even with our help, its spiritual and cultural heritage.”

With apologies to Ike: No, thanks.

The United States does not suffer from a lack of sufficient unity. The United States thrives on the opposite of unity: disagreement, debate, competition, rivalry. Totalitarian countries have unity. Democratic republics have disagreement. That’s why we have elections and legislatures. Disagreement is good.

If you know how to do it.

The kind of unity that Biden talks about means — to the modest extent that it means anything at all — general agreement on a political program. (His political program, of course.) And, that’s just the thing: Biden and his party have some terrible ideas. That doesn’t make them terrible people, necessarily. (Please, no more retch-inducing paeans to Biden’s mythical decency — he is at least the liar Donald Trump was, and every inch a charlatan.) I am confident that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a perfectly decent person who likes puppies and holds her views in earnest. She’s also a socialist. I’m a classical liberal. We are not going to get together on that. That doesn’t mean I have to hate her — it means I have to oppose her. The kind of society where people don’t oppose those who have political power is not the kind of society in which you want to live.

Any unity capacious enough to contain both Hayekian liberalism and its opposite is too vague to be useful; any unity so narrowly tailored as to include only unchallenged points of general agreement is platitudinous. For example: Ocasio-Cortez advocates the so-called Green New Deal, and I oppose nearly every point of it — what chance for unity? We surely both agree that we would prefer clean air and clean water to pollution, a healthy environment to a less-healthy one, etc. — an inane unity that is of no practical use.

But calls for unity are not actually oriented toward the practical. They are spiritual mandates.

Presidential calls for unity express the increasingly sacral and quasi-monarchical character of the American presidency and the person of the president himself, who is treated as a kind of holy person, the body politic incarnate. The train of thought is there in the underlying etymologies: unity, community, communion. The American political superstition sets the Confucian model on its head, holding that if there is order in the nation then there will be order in the community and in the family, that our hearts will be made right in national democratic communion. Applied to American politics at large, that mysticalizing tendency is superstition; applied to the president in particular, it is idolatry.

We treat presidents like kings, when they are only employees — and temps, at that.

I won’t pretend Joe Biden is my friend, or even that I respect him — he isn’t, and I don’t. But he won the election, so he holds the office, until he doesn’t. I hope President Biden takes the opportunity to do some good things, by which — of course — I mean things I agree with. I don’t expect that to be the case, because we disagree about what is best for the country. And those disagreements are over issues such as civil rights and the sanctity of life itself — not trivia. And so I will argue with him and his partisans, criticize him, and oppose him.

And I’ll take a hard pass on ghastly calls for unity with Joe Biden or any other politician.

President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden arrive for the inauguration of Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden delivers his speech after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States as Jill Biden holds a Bible on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden reacts after being sworn in during his inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President as her spouse Doug Emhoff holds a Bible during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris bumps fists with Joe Biden after being sworn in during the presidential inauguration ceremony on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris, Doug Emhoff, and President Joe Biden during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Members of the news media watch President Joe Biden give his inaugural address from the press briefing room at the White House in Washington D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff wave as they arrive ahead of the inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden arrives with Jill Biden for his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden arrive for the inauguration of Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden gestures as he arrives for his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden attend the inauguration of Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President-elect Joe Biden bumps fists with former President Barack Obama during Biden's inauguration as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff arrive for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff arrive for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris talks to Vice President Mike Pence as they arrive for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris greets former President Barack Obama during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama arrive before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton arrive before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush arrive before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Former President George W. Bush with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), left, before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence arrive for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as they arrive for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) arrives before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao attend the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Singer Lady Gaga arrives for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Guests arrive during the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
The military band assembles before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
U.S. Marines stand at the west front of the Capitol before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
A member of the Metropolitan Police Department monitors his surroundings as preparations are made ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's Presidential Inauguration near the White House in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
A guest wearing a U.S. flag mask arrives for the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
From left, Sen. Amy Klobucha (D-MN), Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), President-elect Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and Doug Emhoff, arrive at the steps of the U.S. Capitol ahead of inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
From left: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and husband Doug Emhoff, President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) arrive ahead of the inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Members of an honor guard waits at the White House during Jo Biden’s inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, in Washington D.C., January 20, 2021.
Marine One carrying President Donald Trump flies past the U.S. Capitol building ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
Marine One carrying President Donald Trump passes the U.S. Capitol before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Donald Trump gestures as he and First Lady Melania Trump depart the White House to board Marine One ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump depart the White House to board Marine One ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump depart the White House aboard Marine One ahead of the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump wave as they board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., January 20, 2021.