The Corner

Politics & Policy

Against ‘Unity’

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

For what I guess are obvious reasons, the past couple of weeks have been heavy with discussions and columns on the theme of President Trump and “unity.” “Trump can’t unite us,” says the headline on a discussion between Ross Douthat and Frank Bruni in the New York Times. “Can anyone?”

One possible answer to that question is: “I don’t care.”

Nobody has ever explained why it is we need to be “united” to begin with, or made the case that we are somehow seriously disunited. There’s a great deal of histrionic howling and stupidity surrounding our politics, which is really only a proxy war for deeper underlying cultural differences. There’s some cause for concern there, but the cure for that division isn’t “unity” — it’s the opposite of unity: Live and let live. A great many of our problems come from the desire to forcibly recruit people whose lives and interests are unlike our own into the pursuit of our own narrow visions of the good life. The whole point of our national arrangement is that we can be pluribus and unum at the same time. That’s why the states didn’t cease to exist when we created a federal government. “Unity” means “oneness,” and trying to push people into oneness when they want different things will always cause tension. If there’s “unity,” then somebody wins and somebody loses. Plurality, on the other hand, means that we don’t all have to live the same way or hold the same things dear.

There are things to be concerned about, of course. But the country is trucking along just fine, our institutions are robust, our communities functional.

It isn’t that we are or should be atomistic Randian anticommunitarians, by any means, and it’s good and natural that we should have some affection for our country and for our fellow citizens. But why the purported need for some kind of burning sense of urgent national solidarity? We aren’t at war, any more than usual, or in crisis, or facing an existential threat calling for comprehensive unified national action. We’re a country full of people who get up and go to work, care for their families, and live their lives — all of which goes on perfectly well without any particular sense of fervent “unity.”

The conservative attitude is sometimes lampooned as being nothing much more than, “Get a job, hippie.” But between sentimental calls for national unity and “Get a job, hippie” . . . there’s a lot of work that needs doing.

Fervency in politics should be held suspect.

And even if such “unity” were necessary or desirable, why should it come from the chief administrative official of the federal government? We have a president, not a prince. The president isn’t the country. He isn’t even the government. The purported need to bask in the glow of solidarity under his benevolent gaze is gross and unworthy of us as a people.

We aren’t here to be bent by the government to some national purpose. The government is here to be bent to our purposes. In a healthier society, we’d think about politicians the way I think about the guy who cuts my grass. He seems like a good guy. I’m always happy to see him. But all I need him to do is to cut the damned grass and take his money. I don’t really have to feel one way or the other about it. Government is there to fix potholes and mind the borders and keep the peace. It isn’t there to give us a sense of purpose, or to make us feel good about our neighbors and fellow citizens. And if you can’t endure your neighbor because you’re so torqued up about whoever won the last election or whoever’s going to win this one, then you have problems that no mere politician can solve.

I don’t need a federal government that’s on a quest for national unity. I need one that will balance the books, enforce the law, and, from time to time, kill some people who need killing. And, otherwise, mind its own business. I’d be satisfied with that.

We should try to get a government that functions better as a government rather than try to make it function as some kind of national moral totem.

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