Unity Over Bipartisanship

Genuine bipartisanship is largely illusory. To deliver for Americans, Democrats need unity.

By Tom Perriello

Tagged DemocratspartisanshippoliticsRepublicans

America is in desperate need of unity and healing. The depth of our divisions represents a legitimate threat to the American experiment in inclusive constitutional democracy. Addressing these divides is so vital that it must be seen as a decade-long project that engages the entire nation. Efforts by some to solve this problem inside the beltway through bipartisan deal making misdiagnose our national illness in a way that offers a prescription likely not only to fail but to worsen our symptoms.

Most Americans have a low opinion of both political parties and an even lower opinion of Congress. Our distrust of institutions runs so deep that Americans are likely to perceive a deal cut by senators as selling out working folks, particularly when the only clear price tag for bipartisanship so far would be a promise to keep the minimum wage at the below-poverty level of $14,500 per year. If asked whether they want the parties to get along, Americans will say yes, but more in the way they would want two noisy neighbors to stop feuding rather than as their highest aspiration for life on their street.

The problem is not that bipartisanship is too hefty of a goal, but rather too anemic. As someone who has served in Congress and countries recovering from civil war, I know the dangers of focusing on bipartisan or power-sharing arrangements over universal programs. The former focus typically entrenches power around two poles, negotiating terms and building an assumption of zero-sum power within which the sides can only gain by the other side losing seats or ministries. The Senate will be the last place rather than the birthplace of American reunification, because the incentives are all off. In 2009, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was not scared that Obama’s policies were too liberal. He was worried that they were too popular. A Republican leader in the House explained it to me this way: “We aren’t going to let Barack Obama do to America what Mark Warner did to Virginia.” He was referring to the current senator’s term as Virginia’s governor, and he meant fix a budget disaster left by the previous Republican Governor by passing a budget backed by unions and the Chamber of Commerce to make Virginia the best managed state, best state to do business, and best state in which to raise a family. Why? Because it made Warner so popular that he helped turn Virginia blue in less than a decade.

Unity will grow from the government delivering relief and hope of a better future to Americans of every race and region. The importance of elevating the universal over the bipartisan has only become more stark after Donald Trump’s rise to power. Our two-party system had been hiding deeper ideological divides behind the artificial simplicity of red and blue states. Perhaps seen more clearly when put in the context of global trends, we are witnessing the decline of traditional center, right, and left parties in advanced democracies, organized around a relatively narrow range of policy disagreements with a mutually accepted framework of democracy and the rule of law. The resurgent dividing line is between ethno-national authoritarian leaders and parties on the one hand versus coalitions supporting inclusive democracy on the other.

The most deep and vicious divides in Congress today are not between the two parties but inside the Republican caucuses. The unity America needs is not between two parties but among all of those who are committed to inclusive democracy governed by the Constitution, fair elections, and the rule of law. Ironically today, these values are considered universal but not bipartisan.

To accept what most divides us is to set your priorities for reunifying us. The fuel on the fire of authoritarian strongmen is the failure of a democratic government to deliver results. Thus, on this understanding of our divides, the most important action President Biden could take to build national unity is to deliver maximal results felt by Americans of every region and race, not to focus on Senate procedures, deal making, or feelings. The cynicism bred by incrementalism and broken promises makes the rise of a more disciplined strongman as Trump 2.0 far more likely.

This redefining of political fault lines is also what likely makes it impossible for Biden to advance an agenda that can unite America and to do it with bipartisan support. Why? Because the Republican senators willing to stand up (or tiptoe out) against conspiracy theories and Trump’s racist authoritarianism are almost all staunch conservative ideologues on issues of policy. Senators Pat Toomey and Rob Portman are arguably to the right of faux-populists like Senator Josh Hawley, and even voted with President Trump nearly 90 percent of the time.

The size and speed of the recovery bills will matter far more to Americans of every region and race than whether the Senate uses reconciliation to pass it. But these are still near-term steps toward national unity. President Biden, with a rare breadth of historical perspective, has built a deeper truth into his strategy—building back something better than the pre-COVID, triple recession century American’s have suffered so far. The near-term national project is to get every school, stadium, and small business open by the fall as we begin a decade-long effort to rebuild a more inclusive, green, and affordable American dream.

But there is a deeper project here as well—America finally living up to its highest aspiration to be a multi-racial democracy with equality under the law and liberty and justice for all. This promise is built so deeply into our national psyche, albeit experienced very differently across the racial divide, that we sometimes forget what a historical anomaly this represents.

A similar error of conventional wisdom pervades those encouraging President Biden to ratchet down the rhetoric on racial injustice and white supremacy. As the great body of research around the race-class narrative has shown, this is a logical fallacy belied by the data. Americans, including white Trump voters, are more likely to unify when racism is mentioned, along with acknowledgement of other ways the system is rigged against the working and middle class. Giving the same class critique without mentioning racism is actually less convincing to white voters. I have written elsewhere about the decade-long efforts needed in this regard.

It is telling how much of the talk about the need for unity and reconciliation has focused on engaging those who divided us instead of making those who were marginalized and dehumanized under Trump being made to feel fully part of the American project again. Nothing is more galling than editorial boards that see executive actions doing exactly that—criticizing Biden for signing orders making Muslim Americans, LGBTQI Americans, first and second generation immigrants feel reunited with the American project. This is the analysis that bipartisanship over unity produces.

But this brings us back to the Senate and the way it could contribute to national unity. President Biden should call on all Americans, citizens and elected officials alike, to be allies in a universal commitment to the great American experiment in multi-racial constitutional democracy. And here is where the set of GOP senators high on the democracy axis could contribute in ways that have proven vital in post-conflict countries and draws heavily from the faith tradition our current President knows well. Confession, contrition, and penance on the path to forgiveness and reunification with a higher cause.

The Big Lie remains with us, and it was created in the first instance not by Donald Trump but Republican leadership that made a choice to stoke conspiracies of systematic voter fraud for more than a decade. The party had to choose between changing its agenda to appeal to more voters or limiting how many voters were allowed, and they chose the latter. It is not enough to repeat that Trump’s claims on this election are a lie, but also to call out their own culpability in the original sin of the voter fraud myth that oppressed communities of color and working-class Americans and fueled cynicism and conspiracies. Healing would begin with admission of these lies and genuine apologies. Then repeating this like seven Hail Marys. And finally, GOP Senators interested in unity should be the first in line advocating for democracy reforms to expand and protect voting rights, ballot access and the integrity of our elections, as well as reforms to reduce the corruption and dark money that also fuels this cynicism. In other words, the litmus test for real national unity is not whether President Biden gets Republican votes for a recovery package that delivers universal benefits to Americans of every race and region, but rather whether Republican senators join the universal American aspiration to democracy by embracing voting reforms. While some argue that leveling the playing field will benefit Democrats at the polls, that is hardly an argument against a level playing field. More importantly, these democracy reforms should empower more moderate Republicans, as their party is forced to compete for American majorities rather than race to corrupt our democracy through voter suppression. As we say in this election, Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities are not yet sold on the Democratic Party but rather driven there as the only one offering a vision of an inclusive America. Our partisanship can become a marketplace of ideas that drives national unity, but only when both parties are committed openly and consistently to the belief that Americans of all races are worthy not just of voting but of being competed over for their votes. Understanding the primacy of national unity over Senate bipartisanship has immediate practical effects. American unity will be better measured not by the number of executive actions President Biden signs but rather the millions of our neighbors welcomed back into the promise of an inclusive American democracy and dream. Using reconciliation to produce kitchen-table results for Americans of every region and race ranks high on the unity scale from a national perspective, even if it scores low on a Senate unity perspective. Given the crises we face and skewed incentives, bipartisanship will be the result not the cause of bringing America back together. It should be something we hope to see in a few years once democracy reform and a more inclusive, green, and affordable American dream are creating a level playing field on which two parties (or more) compete based on the quality of their ideas for the blessing of a majority of American voters. Not since Reconstruction has that sacred project of multiracial democracy been closer at hand and more at threat. That is the prize on which the Biden Administration’s eyes, and those of all of us, should be focused if we want to unify these United States.

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Tom Perriello is a former diplomat, congressman, and conflict analyst who now serves as Executive Director of the Open Society Foundations for the U.S., which supports the protection and expansion of open, inclusive democracy in the United States and around the world. He previously served as President Obama’s Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes Region, Special Advisor for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Congressman for Virginia’s Fifth District.   

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