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What We Mean When We Talk About “Unity”

It’s not about voting on a policy. It’s about fighting the insurgents trying to destroy our democracy.
by Joe Klein
February 17, 2021
What We Mean When We Talk About “Unity”
US President Joe Biden holds a face mask as he participates in a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 16, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

I rise to defend—defiantly, perhaps foolishly—the notion of unity. I know the concept has taken a bashing this past month. It has been ridiculed, dismissed, and rendered banal. It has been conflated with “bipartisanship,” even though the two exist on separate metaphysical planes.

Unity has to do with principles; bipartisanship, with policies. Bipartisanship is a tactic, the product of compromise. But there is no bargaining over unity. It is a call to arms, a fighting word.

I’ve experienced pure “unity” only a few times in my life. I certainly felt it in the hours after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We lived in a small town north of New York City. Nine of our neighbors didn’t come home that night. Almost immediately, the forces of social capital in town—that is, the women—were attending to the grieving families, providing food and company and babysitting. Every family was cared for. This went on for weeks. On September 12, we heard that they needed shovels and gloves at Ground Zero. There was a rush to the local Home Depot, which was quickly bought out, the equipment stacked in front of the local firehouse.

You must understand: Our town was divided politically, sometimes bitterly. (And over the stupidest issues, inevitably.) It had wealthy, middle-class and working-class neighborhoods. But we were united in those days after the tragedy, and the feeling was, for many of us, energizing. We had a common purpose; we were a community, not just a zip code.

I’ve had similar feelings out on public service deployments with veterans groups such as Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues. I brandished a wheelbarrow for Team Rubicon in Oklahoma after tornadoes hit. (My signature TR t-shirt was labeled “Gramps.”) It was a transcendent experience for the hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who participated. They were organized in squads, just as they had been downrange. They carried ladders and chainsaws, not guns. They helped; people were grateful. There were a lot of hugs. Muscular bonding—the heart of the military experience—creates a spiritual camaraderie. (The military historian William McNeill wrote a book about the primal power of close-order drill called, Keeping Together in Time.)

But unity exists on another plane as well. It isn’t just spiritual. It’s a form of intellectual fellowship, an unwavering belief in certain ground rules: the boundaries set by the U.S. Constitution, the common acceptance of fact-based truths. For instance, that the 2020 election, the most closely monitored in U.S. history, was conducted fairly.

When Joe Biden talks about the need for unity, he is not being soft and gooey. He is confronting the danger of a militant fifth column in America that believes in neither common ground rules, nor facts.

Biden is not talking about the need for everyone to agree with the details his COVID-19 package. He is talking about the need for everyone to acknowledge that half a million of our fellow citizens have been killed by this virus and that the pandemic is not a “scamdemic” or Deep State plot. He is talking about the basic rudiments of citizenship and patriotism against would-be insurgents—this term is not loose hyperbole—who will not even stipulate to the facts of our shared reality.

Unity is more profound than bipartisanship. Mitt Romney and Bill Cassidy may vote against the COVID-19 package, but they are American unitarians. Biden may not compromise on the package—though I think he might—but that doesn’t diminish his devotion to the basic ground rules.

In the end, unity is the opposite of vapidity; it is an absolute bright line. It is about whether you believe in American democracy, or not.

And unity should also be understood as a declaration of war against those who don’t believe in our democracy.

Such forces have always existed in our midst, at times festering, at times waning. They are a particularly rancid presence now. Unity—our sense of common decency and purpose—requires that we rout them.

Joe Klein

Joe Klein was a political columnist for NewsweekTime, and the New Yorker. He is the author of seven books.