Who Cares about National Unity?

Former Vice President Joe Biden announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, April 25, 2019. (Biden Campaign Handout via Reuters)

Incorporating nonpartisan national symbols into partisan endeavors — a presidential campaign, for instance — only deepens the nation’s division.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including those of you in prison who would read this “news” letter to inform your decisions come election time in a Sanders administration),

Here’s my succinct request to Donald Trump and all the Democrats and Republicans trying to unseat him.

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Stop trying to unify the country.

I’ll wait a minute for those of you who need to clutch your pearls or breathe into a paper bag to compose yourselves.

Okay. Now, if you felt a certain amount of horror, revulsion, or rage at that statement, ask yourself why you want the country unified. (If you felt a sudden burst of sexual arousal, I think you stumbled on the wrong “news”letter.)

Seriously, why is unity good? Think about it, please.

Now as I’ve written a zillion4 times, I think the desire for unity is an evolutionary adaptation. So there’s no need to review all that again, except to say that this doesn’t mean unity isn’t valuable. Love in all its forms, friendship, loyalty, altruism, and all sorts of other things we value are good — or can be good — and they have genetic components too.

But what is it exactly about unity that you think is so damn important? If your answer is simply that “disunity” is bad, that’s understandable. But is that true either? I mean, can’t 300+ million Americans disagree on some stuff without everyone getting weepy? Moreover, it seems to me we’re slicing distinctions as thin as the garlic in the prison cell dinner scene in Goodfellas when people say diversity is among the highest virtues but disunity is one of the greatest vices. If diversity — real diversity — is good, then it is irrefutably the case that some disunity is good too. In a condition of maximum diversity and maximum unity, it follows that all of these very different people — different races, genders, religions, abilities, traditions, etc. — would have to all think alike.

There’s something downright Orwellian about the prospect of shouting at people “We must unite around our celebration of our differences!”

Who the hell wants to live in a world like that?

Unity is Power

Perhaps you desire unity because unity is required to get important things done. This is wholly defensible, and even admirable, depending on the sincerity of the person saying it. Despite what you may have heard, Washington has plenty of decent, civic-minded, and patriotic politicians, policy wonks, and journalists who decry partisanship for the best of reasons. They want to deal with real problems, from the national debt to climate change to various threats from abroad, and they are stymied by the unrelenting ass ache of the current political climate.

But note how the argument here is instrumental or utilitarian, not aesthetic, psychological, or philosophical. We need to unify to get X done. In other words, unity is a tool, a means to an end, not a good in itself. Fire is a tool that can be used for good or evil. Unity is the political equivalent of fire — a source of power. This is why the desire for unity became an evolutionary imperative. The unified group was better at hunting and defeating its enemies than the group lacking a sense of common purpose.

So here’s the thing: That means unity is only as good or bad as the goal you want to attain with it. No one likes a good heist movie more than I do. The gang gets together to rob a bank or casino, and they pull it off by sticking together. But all reasonable people understand that in the real world, that’s an immoral goal (hypotheticals about ripping off bad guys — gotta love Kelly’s Heroes! — notwithstanding). Really unified rape gangs are still evil. Indeed, their evil is compounded by their unity.

What is true of rape gangs is also true of evil regimes. Was Nazi Germany less evil because it could plausibly boast of the sense of unity and common purpose felt by so many Germans? In fact, mobs tend to be evil, or at least dangerous, even when they are unified around an ostensibly noble purpose — because unity can be an intoxicant, causing us to surrender our individuality to the group.

But the unity here is merely the mixer in the intoxicating cocktail. The 100-proof stuff is the power that comes with the unity. For instance, Democrats routinely wax nostalgic for the 1930s and the 1960s as times of great unity. As a historical matter this is crazy talk. The 1930s were a time of violent labor strife and protest. The 1960s were even worse, with domestic terror attacks, political assassinations, and massive protests filling the headlines. This is a great example of how unity is the mask power wears to justify itself. What liberals are nostalgic for is not unity but the kind of power they had back in the good old days. They can’t say, “Man, I really miss having the kind of power to do what we wanted,” so they gauze it up with false phantasms of national unity lost.

This is a particular weakness of intellectuals who, like all humans, tend to crave what they don’t have. That’s why they look enviously on regimes that put into action what they advocate here. Tom Friedman drooling over Chinese authoritarianism is one example. Stuart Chase — the New Deal egghead who marveled over the Soviet Union’s accomplishments — captured this spirit well when he wrote, “Why should the Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?”

What the Founders Did

The Founding Fathers were profoundly aware of the perils of unity, which is why they set up the first government in human history deliberately premised on the idea that disunity was valuable. Sure, the Romans and others had systems where power was shared between a monarch or emperor and some kind of parliament. But those systems emerged organically as compromises between different power centers. The kings of England did not want to be weak compared to their French peers. Circumstances, not design, made them so.

The founders studied the past with an eye to seeing what might work for the future. They subscribed to Edmund Burke’s view that “In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from past errors and infirmities of mankind.” The founders put on paper what history had ratified by experience. “Example is the school of mankind and he will learn at no other” Burke said, in perhaps my most overused — and favorite — Burke quote.

The founders wanted to create a new kind of country where individuals — and individual communities — could pursue happiness as they saw fit. They didn’t achieve that instantaneously, and we still don’t have it in meaningful respects, but they set up the machinery to make it achievable. This doesn’t mean the founders were against unity in all circumstances. Their attitude could be described as in necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. In essential things unity, in non-essential things liberty, and in all things charity. In other words, they understood that unity was a powerful tool, best used sparingly and only when truly needed. Odds are good that this was — or is — the basic, unstated rule in your own family. Good parents don’t demand total unity from their children, dictating what hobbies and interests they can have. We might force our kids to finish their broccoli, but even then we don’t demand they “celebrate broccoli!” I wish my daughter shared my interest in certain things, but I have no interest in forcing her too, in part because I know that’s futile. Spouses reserve unity as an imperative for the truly important things. My wife hates my cigars and has a? fondness for “wizard shows.” But we tend to agree on the big things. That seems right to me.

What is fascinating to me is that in the centuries since the Enlightenment, unbridled unity, enforced and encouraged from above, has been the single greatest source of evil, misery, and oppression on a mass scale, and yet we still treat unity like some unalloyed good.

Just Drop It

Okay enough of all that. Let’s get to the here and now. Joe Biden promised this week that if he’s president, he will unite the country. Newsflash: He won’t. Nor will any of the other Democrats. Donald Trump won’t do it either — and certainly hasn’t so far. George W. Bush wasn’t a uniter. Barack Obama promised unity more than any politician in modern memory — how did he do?

For the reasons spelled out above, our system isn’t designed to be unified by a president — or anybody else. The Era of Good Feelings when we only had one party and a supposed sense of nationality was a hot mess. It’s kind of hilarious to hear Democrats talk endlessly about the need to return to “constitutional norms” in one moment and then talk about the need to unify the whole country towards a singular agenda in the next. Our constitutional norms enforce an adversarial system of separated powers where we hash out our disagreements and protect our interests in political combat. Democracy itself is not about agreement but disagreement. And yet Kamala Harris recently said that as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to do exactly what she wants, and if they don’t she’ll do it herself. You know why Congress might not do what she wants it to do? Because we’re not unified on the issue of guns. In a democracy, when you don’t have unity, it means you don’t get the votes you need. And when you don’t get the votes you need, you don’t get to have your way. Constitutional norms, my ass.

So here’s my explanation for why I want politicians to promise national unity. First, they can’t and shouldn’t try. Tom Sowell was on the 100th episode of my podcast this week, and one of the main takeaways was that we shouldn’t talk about doing things we cannot do. Joe Biden has been on the political scene since the Pleistocene Era. What evidence is there that he has the chops to convince Republicans to stop being Republicans? When President Bernie Sanders gives the vote to rapists and terrorists still in jail, will we be edging closer to national unity? When President Warren makes good on her bribe of college kids with unpaid student loans, what makes you think this will usher in an era of comity and national purpose?

But more importantly, when you promise people something you can’t deliver you make them mad when you don’t deliver it. I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Democrats spend their time calling every inconvenient institution and voter racist is that they are embittered by Barack Obama’s spectacular failure to deliver on the promises he made and the even grander promises his biggest fans projected upon him. When you convince people they’re about to get everything they want and then you don’t follow through, two reactions are common. The first is a bitter and cynical nihilism that says nothing good can be accomplished. The second is an unconquerable conviction that evil people or forces thwarted the righteous from achieving something that was almost in their grasp. The globalists don’t want us to have nice things! The corporations keep the electric car down! The Jooooooooz bought off Congress! The Establishment pulled the plug! The Revolution was hijacked! The system was rigged! The founders were Stonecutters!

Finally, whenever you make things that are supposed to be above or beyond politics and make them part of an explicitly political agenda, you inevitably convince the people opposed to that political agenda that your invocations of grander themes are simply political. If you think nationalism is a great thing, using it to sell tax cuts, school choice or religious liberty will inevitably make opponents of those things dislike nationalism even more. The same applies to patriotism, religion, and every other grand concept.

Church attendance is plummeting in the United States. I think there are many reasons for this, ranging from popular culture to the decline of the family to our education system. But one important reason is that Christianity is increasingly seen as an adjunct of the Republican party. From the AP:

David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who studies religion’s role in U.S. civic life, attributed the partisan divide to “the allergic reaction many Americans have to the mixture of religion and conservative politics.”

“Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion,” he said.

Yes, I understand this is a complex phenomenon. Some of this is a result of the fact that the Democrats have grown so rhetorically hostile to religious liberty and religion itself (they booed God at the 2012 Democratic Convention!). The GOP certainly shouldn’t be equally hostile to religion for the sake of national unity. But it’s also a product of the fact that many prominent spokesmen for Christianity have made it entirely reasonable to think that you have to be a loyal Republican to be a good Christian. They quote scripture to defend Republican’s sinful behavior and they quote scripture to condemn Democrat’s sinful behavior.

When politicians push national unity in the service of a political agenda, they are insisting that politics is the only metric that counts in determining what it means to be unified.

This country is wonderfully unified on all sorts of questions. For instance:

The vast majority of Americans agree that believing in individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech (91%), respecting American political institutions and laws (90%), accepting people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds (86%), and being able to speak English (83%) are somewhat or very important to being American.

We’re also unified on the myriad other apolitical questions. I don’t have the polling in front of me, but I am confident that the vast majority of Americans believe that families are important, education is good, good manners should be celebrated, slavery is wrong, crime should be punished, children should be protected, hot dogs are not sandwiches, the Super Bowl is fun to watch, Fox shouldn’t have cancelled Firefly, they’re all good dogs, etc. The best way to make these issues sources of division is for politicians to turn them into partisan issues.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: It was a stressful week for the pups, as they had to go to the vet and get poked and prodded. Both of them have good reason to hate the vet. Zoë spent a long time there in the ICU when she almost died from parvo. Pippa had surgery there a couple years ago. But I think they hate the vet because, for dogs, it must smell like the abattoir in Hostel or Saw. Pippa in particular is a nervous wreck there. She is always happy to get in the car. But she knows we’re at the vet in the parking lot outside and she cowers in the back like she’s going to be dragged to her doom. Anyway, they both made it out alive. But I got a call yesterday saying they both tested positive for the “presence” of Lyme Disease. This has happened before — the test merely says there’s evidence they had it in the past. We don’t think they have it now. But, to be sure, the vet wants us to bring in urine samples. I asked how I should do this, and the tech on the phone said, “Oh just bring some Tupperware and slip it under at the right time. First of all, not with my Tupperware, thank you very much. Second, I’m not going into the details about how the girls pee, but there are some particular logistical problems in getting the kind of clearance required. Moreover, even if that could be worked out, if I lunge at one of my dogs with some Tupperware at the precise moment they are peeing, there are many things they might do, but the one thing I am certain they would do is: STOP PEEING. Anyway, we’ll figure it out.

Meanwhile, they’re both good otherwise (though we’re going to put Zoë on a stricter diet, which probably means she will try to augment her caloric intake with some neighborhood varmints). Zoë is getting her scritches, Pippa her ball, Zoë is stopping to eat the flowers, and Pippa is getting her ball, Zoë is heaping scorn on Pippa, and Pippa is getting her ball. They’re both getting in some swim time, though Pippa is also getting her stick. Oh, and Samson beat her to the ball, which was good for her spirit.

ICYMI . . .
Last week’s G-File
On Game of Thrones
This week’s first Remnant, a nationalism “discussion”
The Democrats’ impeachment morass
My appearance on the Bulwark podcast
The 100th episode of the Remnant, with Thomas Sowell
The latest GLoP
I appeared on Jon Ward’s excellent podcast, The Long Game, in which I talked about a bunch of stuff, including that other thing I’m doing.
Friday column
And now, the weird stuff.
Scientists reactivate mammoth cells
The internet finds a homeless man’s lost pet rat
61 year old wins 544 mile race in Australia
Company offers to ‘Fake a Vacation’ with doctored photos
So what happened to Julian Assange’s cat?
If you’re going to burglarize a home, don’t get stuck in the chimney
Pick up your trash or go to war
The Easter Bunny has started hanging around a tough crowd
Texan cavemen ate rattlesnakes
Piranhas have migrates to the UK
Please don’t use iguanas as weapons
I said no pictures!
The rat is a parrot
Potato AirBnB
Chimpanzee discovers social media
Rare live footage of G.K. Chesterton

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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