What does 'unity' mean in today's political landscape?

Feb 16, 2021 at 09:19 am by Brendon Donoho

Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Barack Obama

Though it may have taken Donald Trump more than two months to admit it, he lost. So too did the Republican Party on the whole. The Democratic Party under Joe Biden has taken control of the entire Federal legislature and the White House for the first time since President Barack Obama's 2008 victory.

Trump and the GOP helmed one of the worst disasters in U.S. history with their handling of the COVID-19 virus and, whether their fault or not, they were punished brutally at the ballot box.

With a chaotic nation and a raging pandemic, the national conversation has predictably shifted to something comforting. Namely, the vague, nebulous term of “unity.” This makes a great talking point for a politician as it can be stretched to represent nearly anything. Like “justice” or “freedom,” the term can be repeated, as it was eight times in Joe Biden's inaugural address, to massive applause while the listener defines the term in any way they please.

And so we stand, united in our desire for “unity” but divided on what it means. Like the future of our nation itself, “unity” is ours to define, and we ought to do so carefully.

For some wisdom, it might be useful to look back to a time which has been often compared to our present moment: the Civil Right's era of the 1960s. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke heavily on unity and its many, incompatible meanings in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he sharply criticizes “the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” King recognizes that often, the pursuit of unification can lead to a quelling of fires which burn righteously.

Today, the American Left comes to the table with a laundry list of goals, all of which can be justified on the grounds of “unity.” We must take seriously the legacy of institutional racism and work to root out its causes and correct its effects. We must build an immigration system which is based in the radical humanity of those entering our country and destroy cruel legislation that criminalizes their pursuit of freedom and opportunity. We must build a foreign policy which supports the oppressed around the world and opposes the oppressors, and which prioritizes not war but diplomacy and sovereignty. We must rebuild a crumbling infrastructure, kick start a lethargic and unfair economy, and address the coming calamity of climate change which is bearing down upon all of us. In short, we need radical change, and we must unite to achieve it.

The cynical calls for “unity” from many on the right amount to a last ditch attempt to retain some semblance of the power which has been taken away from them and paralyze any progress for as long as possible. To this end, unity must be opposed.

However, anyone who is willing to unite on the need for a new and better world, one which will recognize the beauty and humanity of not only those of all political beliefs, but of all races, religions, sexualities, gender identities, citizenship statuses, and socioeconomic classes, is nothing if not an ally. If we are to unite for a better, more inclusive future for all the working people of this country, then this is a unity which I welcome with open arms.

We are all seeking peace and unity so desperately, but we must seek the presence of justice over the absence of tension.


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