What does national unity look like?

How liberal patriots can help make President Biden’s promise a reality

In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden made a strong plea for national unity after more than four years of division deliberately fostered by his predecessor. It’s easy – and sorely tempting – for Democrats and progressives to point their fingers solely and exclusively at conservatives and Republicans, especially when the right bears the lion’s share of responsibility and then some for the deterioration of our national politics. There’s no denying the reality that true national unity won’t be possible until the center-right cleans up its own act.

All the same, those of us on the broad center-left ought to be willing if not eager to do our part to lower the nation’s political temperature. It’s up to conservatives to regulate their own side of the political aisle, but that does not absolve liberal patriots from their own responsibilities to do the same. Leaving the matter wholly up to conservatives gives them a veto on the subject of national unity, one many on the right are already trying to use. If we’re serious about national unity along the lines put forward by President Biden, it’s incumbent upon us to act like it. To paraphrase the ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus, liberal patriots need to remember what’s under our own control and acknowledge what’s not. In the process, we may find that the center-left can expand the ranks of the “enough of us” and build the political coalitions necessary to make real progress. 

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on how liberal patriots can do their part to help bring the country back together:

Do not presume bad faith. Too often, many progressives view the stated positions and arguments of their interlocutors as masks for base motives – even in the case of slight disagreements. As a result, they fail to engage with the issues at hand while cultivating an unearned sense of moral superiority that sees disagreement as evidence of depravity. Opponents aren’t just wrong, they’re wicked and ought to be cast beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse. That’s obviously not conducive to constructive political and policy debate, much less the sort of national unity needed for America to move forward.

Instead, liberal patriots should debate the ideas and dispute the arguments of their political opponents – not their abstract demographic characteristics or their personalities. We should see political disagreement as normal and healthy, not as a personal attack or sign of moral turpitude. 

Focus on persuasion, not conversion or coercion. National unity doesn’t require all or enough of our fellow Americans to see the proverbial light. All that’s needed is a minimalist agreement to support a particular policy or political action. Liberal patriots aim to argue with and persuade those who disagree with them, and that entails a willingness to listen to them. It’s difficult to expect others to listen to your own case when you refuse to entertain their own views. What’s more, we need to accept the possibility that we may in fact fail in our attempt and assume the risk that we ourselves may change our minds.

As a corollary, it’s important for liberal patriots to recognize our own fallibility. We won’t have all the right answers, all the time. We’ll inevitably get things wrong and commit faux pas every so often, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s no reason to avoid taking political and policy stands that may not sit well with prevailing orthodoxy on any side.

Build expansive coalitions, not ideologically pure factions. In keeping with the assumption of good faith and emphasis on persuasion, liberal patriotism focuses on building expansive political coalitions to accomplish certain political objectives and policy goals. Though it’s a distinct worldview of its own, liberal patriotism recognizes that in a country as politically divided and heterogeneous as the contemporary United States it’s impossible to get anything done by relying on those who already agree with you on every last issue or ideological proposition. It’s not just the persistently even divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress that’s emerged over the past decade and a half or so, it’s the fact that the country’s main center-left political party still runs the ideological gamut from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to outright socialists like Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez of New York. 

Exceptions to this rule should be relatively strict and few, like those senators and representatives who questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election even after the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine building coalitions with those who greased the wheels of an attack on the fabric of our very democracy. But in general, liberal patriots aim to win their fellow citizens over to their side through persuasion and argument – and if they can’t do that, they aim to at least win their support for specific political projects and policy programs. That’s undoubtedly more difficult when the country’s two main political parties have become as ideologically distinct as they have in recent decades – there are few conservative Democrats and virtually no liberal Republicans nowadays, for instance – but that doesn’t make it impossible.

Exercise forbearance and magnanimity in victory. Liberal patriots remain ambitious in their ultimate policy goals and expansive in their vision of national life, they’re careful not to read too much into electoral success or overreach when they hold the reins of power. They recognize that in a democracy, neither victories nor defeats are permanent – in contrast to so many on the left and especially the right who see each new election as a matter of life and death. Again, conservatives bear much more of the responsibility for this state of affairs than does the broad center-left. Indeed, fixation on what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “permanent apocalypse” has animated post-World War II conservative movement politics since the very start.

In recent years, however, the left has developed its own dialect of apocalyptic politics surrounding the issue of climate change. What’s more, the political hardball of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has led many on the broader center-left to entertain proposals to reply in kind. But liberal patriots would counsel forbearance in the face of such provocations, not further escalation. Similarly, they would proceed deliberately when it comes to the use of unilateral executive power to further various aspects of their agenda – especially when it comes to controversial issues that command no real consensus within the broad center-left itself, much less the country as a whole. 

Keep politics in perspective. Finally, it’s important for liberal patriots to keep politics in proper perspective. It’s a practical mechanism to organize collective action on behalf of the common good, not a way of life. Americans of virtually every political persuasion have confused the two in recent years and decades, and the results have been detrimental to both the nation and ourselves. We tend to imbue even the most quotidian aspects of daily life with political meanings they cannot and should not support, and as a result negative partisanship has come to define too much of our shared national life – for a recent example, just look at the right-wing reaction to country singer Garth Brooks’ announcement that he’d perform at President Biden’s inauguration

Liberal patriots recognize that as important as politics may be, it’s just one of many important parts of life. We may be more interested and involved in politics than the average citizen, but we won’t live and die by it. That makes it easier for us to accept defeat when it occurs and foster magnanimity in electoral victory or legislative success.

It won’t be easy to achieve the sort of practical unity President Biden called for in his inaugural address. Since they bear much of the responsibility for our current national predicament, much more action will be required from conservatives and Republicans than Democrats and progressives. But liberal patriots ought to be eager to do their part to turn down the nation’s political temperature and help move the country forward.