“Without some clarification on this point, calling for unity looks less like an appeal to historical precedent and more like the nostalgic projection of order and stability onto time periods that were anything but.”
makes similar claims. Op-ed after op-ed mourns hyper-partisanship and “fragmentation.” The unstated implication of these pieces is that once upon a time there was a firmer sense of togetherness and conviction that—appropriately—united the United States and, by extension, the ambiguously defined Western world. Now that that has fallen apart, there seems to be little more to do than cite Yeats’ 1920 poem “The Second Coming”: his year, thus far, has been replete with calls for unity from many places across the political spectrum. Ben Shapiro’s new book How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps opens with a lament for shared American values; calls for their rejuvenation; and, of course, blames the Left for everything that has gone wrong in the United States. When he is not stoking the fires of partisan antagonism or playing the victim, President Donald Trump occasionally
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
The Problems With Unity
One of the challenges associated with unity is specifying when—if ever—things were especially unified. Was it during the Obama years, when Republicans swore to do everything they could to block the Democrats’ agenda? Was there unity in the early 2000’s, when schisms over the War on Terror only calmed down when the Great Recession hit? Was it through the dramas of the Clinton impeachment? Were the 1960’s remarkable for their harmony? Without some clarification on this point, calling for unity looks less like an appeal to historical precedent and more like the nostalgic projection of order and stability onto time periods that were anything but. In a sense, we do not allow the past the dignity of being recollected as a truly human time: when free individuals like ourselves struggled and fought for what mattered to them. The appeal of the past becomes precisely its static quality. The fact that it is inalterable (and can only speak through us) leads many to prefer ruminating on the supposed unity of the historical past rather than dealing authentically with the messy complications of life as lived in the present and towards the future.
More importantly, the yearning for past unity can conceal a decidedly reactionary impetus. The nostalgic projection of unity onto the past can very quickly turn into anger at the open-ended quality of the present and future. This happens when we dwell too much on an idealized past, which can generate resentment towards the apparent chaos of the present. This is dangerous since—while the past is unchanging—the present is constantly in motion, towards a future that is still open. A person who wants freedom for himself and others welcomes this, since a free person living in time relishes his capacity to shape the present and, by extension, the future. At its most potent, the reactionary yearning for past unity and order leads us to forget that free people living within time will always remake the world—and that this will bring a degree of instability to things. The fantasy of a time period where everything was stable generates resentment at the fluidity of time and personal freedom: a yearning to lock the present into the calcified image of the idealized and frozen historical past.
Unity for What?
There are two more practical problem with simply calling for unity for its own sake. The first concerns whether unity is really worth having. I think that unity is valuable, since there are clear virtues to a shared outlook. The most important are fostering the conditions for civic friendship and dialogue that are crucial to a well-functioning democracy. But the fact that there are clear virtues to unity does not simply mean that we should thoughtlessly pursue it for its own sake. People can very easily be united in ignoble and even evil causes. And, in cases such as these, we should celebrate disruptors who force a society to examine its shared convictions that are moral to abandon.
This leads me to the second point with unity for its own sake, which is that it is not at all clear what can and should unite us. Figures such as Shapiro and President Trump believe we should unify around a generally conservative platform, which they generally project as a default outlook that has only been perverted by decades of progressive activism. By contrast Senator Bernie Sanders, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others believe that we should unite around a radically progressive agenda, which will bring long-awaited justice to groups that have been denied it for far too long. Each can tenably accuse the other of simply failing to unite around its preferred agenda. The question remains: which is actually worthy of our fidelity?.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof