If Democrats want to unify the country, they should stop talking about wanting to unify the country.
That's one of the paradoxes of living in a highly polarized political culture. What once might have sounded uplifting and public spirited now sounds banal and naïve. Democrats need to propose a distinctive account of the country's past and present and an alternative vision of its future — one that contrasts sharply with the one emanating daily from the White House and the president's Twitter account. Positioning themselves above it all, as ready and eager to work and compromise with the party of Donald Trump, can't help but make them sound weak and defensive. It certainly won't defeat the president and win back the Senate from the GOP in 2020. The time for such pabulum is over.
As recently as 2004, things seemed very different. Barack Obama launched his national political career with a speech at the Democratic National Convention that was a masterpiece of bipartisan happy talk. Yes, he was a Democrat, but he was really beyond all merely partisan labels — and so were the rest of us. It was only the “spin masters,” “negative ad peddlers,” and “pundits” who convinced us otherwise. Their cynicism needed to be rejected.
The most acclaimed passage of the speech is worth quoting at length.
[T]here are those who are preparing to divide us…. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.
[They] like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that's what this election is about. [Obama]
How quaint that now sounds — on the far side of Obama's eight years in office fighting GOP intransigence every step of the way, and with that pitched battle followed by the thoroughgoing Trumpification of the Republican Party and subsequent lurch of the Democrats to the left.
Obama was right about one thing: There aren't really blue and red states. But there most certainly are blue and red neighborhoods and counties and regions of states — and far more so now than 15 years ago. Voters who live in places with relatively high population densities tend to be Democrats and those from places with relatively low population densities tend to be Republican. And within those areas, people increasingly share a comprehensive outlook on the country, the world, and members of the other party that differs dramatically from what prevails in the other America. Recognizing this fact isn't cynicism. It's realism.
Then what explains the fondness of Democratic presidential candidates, even now, for high-minded beyondism? Why is Joe Biden promising to say nice words about Republicans, and even campaigning for them? Why is Amy Klobuchar insisting that she and tens of millions of Trump voters are united in their “shared belief in our dreams for America”? Why is Beto O'Rourke, in the words of author Joe Hagan, vowing to “listen and learn from the most recalcitrant right-wing voters and work with Republicans”?
Part of the explanation is surely rooted in the good, old-fashioned American suspicion of partisanship that goes all the way back to George Washington, and perhaps before him. The constitutional framers famously hoped that parties wouldn't form in the new nation — and that our politics would be marked by competition among men aiming to rule selflessly in the name of the common good of the county as a whole.
That's exactly what happened, except that those men promptly disagreed about what the common good entails, and so they split up into factions that coalesced into parties. Which is what ends up happening wherever democratic elections are a regular feature of political life. Yet in this country the rise of partisanship tends to be treated as a fall or a decline that needs to be redeemed in favor of a less partial, more purely holistic view of the country and its genuine good. This is a synthesis of a civic republican ethic that prizes selflessness over selfishness and a Christian longing for purification from the grubby ways of the political world.
The highwater mark of such thinking is undoubtedly Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, in which the president, despite serving as commander in chief of the Union in its bloody fight with the Confederacy, positioned himself far above the warring factions in the Civil War and called for apportioning blame to both sides. But of course such magnanimity only became possible because the North had all but prevailed in the fight by the time Lincoln delivered his speech. Even-handedness is infinitely easier from the perspective of victory.
But today's Democrats don't offer expressions of conciliation toward Republicans as a gesture of generosity and fairness to the vanquished. On the contrary, they are motived by something close to the opposite: a skittishness about their capacity to prevail in a fair fight against their ideological opponents. Biden, Klobuchar, and O'Rourke think that they need to woo Republicans over to their side in order to win, and they think the best way to achieve that goal is to play nice, engage in flattery, and downplay the importance and intractability of what separates the two sides.
They're not wrong to think they should try and appeal to the broadest possible segment of the electorate. That's democratic politics 101. But it's foolish to try and reach that goal by denying what everybody knows, which is that there is no longer much meaningful overlap between the parties. Republicans are increasingly defined by their white-hot hatred of the left, and Democrats by their unrestrained loathing of the right. That makes bipartisan boilerplate sound silly — and places the politicians who utter such bromides right smack in the middle of the very nearly empty space between the two parties.
This doesn't mean that the Democrats running for president should go out of their way to attack Republicans in general. Antagonizing a sizable chunk of the electorate by denouncing them (as, say, deplorable) is never smart. But neither should they try to rival Donald Trump as purveyors of political BS. Spreading nonsense in the name of unity might feel nobler than doing so for the sake of divisiveness. But it's nonsense all the same.
Truth is better — and the truth is that Americans are deeply divided. It's far better to propose a bold and clarifying agenda for the country, invite everyone to support it, and hope it touches a chord not just with Democrats but also with some voters who took a chance on Trump in 2016. It might not work, but it may be the best — and perhaps the only possible — way of bringing a slightly larger portion of the country together.