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Unity: What Is It Good For?

“The people united, will never be defeated.” Everyone reading this has likely heard and chanted those words thousands of times.

Joe Biden’s call for unity, echoed in the pious and prayerful cant of countless bloviators on the liberal cable networks, is not about that.

It is not about fundamental – radical – change from the bottom up, but about restoring the order that Donald Trump and his minions put in jeopardy, not for the sake of anything remotely worthwhile, but in order to indulge the narcissistic fantasies of a conman and reality TV personality, and to keep his brand from going under.

What Biden and the others are calling for is national unity (in the sense of “nation” that is synonymous with “country.”

This is ultimately a fatuous goal inasmuch as in nations, individuals’ and groups’ behaviors are coordinated through the use or threat of force; thus, a truly unified nation wouldn’t be a nation at all. It would be more like a well-functioning family (but without the endemic inequality inherent in family structures) in which cooperation is, if not always freely given, at least uncoerced.

No doubt, in anything like the world as we know it, there will always be a need to keep individuals gone astray in line. But where true national unity exists, there is no need for institutional arrangements intended to quash otherwise disabling social divisions. Indeed, there would no such divisions to quash.

This is not to say that talk of “national unity” is inherently fatuous; it is not in circumstances different from our own.

Thus, political leaders in multi-party parliamentary systems sometimes find it expedient to form “governments of national unity,” coalitions consisting of political parties that normally promote different interests or coalesce around different ideological convictions, but that agree, temporarily, to work together to overcome an otherwise intractable impasse or for some other common purpose.

Or in the aftermath of wars of secession in which the would-be secessionists are defeated, calls like Biden’s – or Abraham Lincoln’s – would be appropriate.

They might also be appropriate in civil wars fought within, not between, states, in which seemingly irreconcilable religious or ideological differences or antagonistic class interests cannot be overcome without resorting to armed struggle.

But, despite the best efforts of conman Trump and his marks, nothing that has happened in the United States over the past four years rises (or falls) to that level. This would include Trump’s attempt to incite the fools who heeded his call to come to Washington on January 6 where he would incite them to seize control of the Capitol building and inflict harm on legislators and others that the Dear Leader had turned against, so that he could somehow remain in power, keeping the process servers, bankers, lawyers, and prison wardens with whom he will soon be dealing at bay.

What Biden is calling for is not unity, in any meaningful or feasible sense, but de-escalation of the tensions Trump stirred up. The idea is not to overcome pre-existing divisions or even to render them harmless; it is just to keep them in acceptable bounds.

Trump did not cause circumstances to worsen as palpably as they have since he took office entirely on his own. Longstanding racist and nativist animosities played an indispensable role, and a host of other pre-existing conditions, arising out of our exceptionally undemocratic electoral institutions and our coarsening civic culture made the situation worse by many orders of magnitude.

**

Not long ago, the United States had two “catch-all” bourgeois parties. They hardly differed ideologically or at a policy level, except insofar as they needed to in order to gain votes from the different, though generally overlapping, constituencies they catered to.

Calling them “bourgeois” is anachronistic and can be misleading inasmuch as they do not, and indeed could not, represent anything like the classical bourgeoisies of late eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century western Europe.

Nevertheless, at the level of class structure, if not of class culture, the old designation remains apt. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican Parties are, of have ever been, parties of the working class, even if they have both drawn on working class support from time to time. Neither are they parties of a landed aristocracy or its lineal or cultural descendants. In the United States, a country that has never had anything like a landed gentry outside the antebellum South, how could they be?

However, the interests those two parties serve are close enough to those that the classical bourgeoisies of Europe were evolving towards to make the description appropriate. Those would be the interests of the businesses they owned. They owned, ran and benefited from industrial, commercial, and financial businesses. The balance has shifted over the years, with industry in decline and finance in ascendance, but the basic structure is essentially the same.

In the long gone, pre-Reagan days, regional and family traditions were key determinants of party affiliations, but this changed somewhat after Reagan left his mark. From that point on, attitudes towards social issues – gun laws, abortion rights, racial and gender equality, and so on – mattered most. Bush the father continued the process and Clinton accelerated it mightily.

It is hard to believe nowadays, but on the social issues around which party differences have come to be drawn, Republicans were at first more likely than Democrats to be on the right side. Blame the demographics for that; socially conservative Catholics tended to vote Democratic, while white Protestant women with progressive, especially feminist inclinations, still helped shape the course the GOP took.

In some rustbelt towns and in “conservative” hotspots elsewhere, especially in the sunbelt and the mountain West, Catholic social conservatism survives within the Democratic fold to this day. However, it has generally become less harmful than it used to be, not so much because enlightenment is on the rise, but because inter- and intra-party rivalries have made a modus vivendi with more liberal Democrats necessary.

Meanwhile, social progressivism in Republican circles remained influential, especially among suburban women, well into the nineties and then, in diminished form, in the Bush the Younger era, even as the party drifted further to the right. However, by the time that Trump turned the GOP into a Trump cult, all semblances of intelligence and decency were already on life support.

Meanwhile, all sorts of vileness, revolving mainly but not entirely around issues of race and inequality, were percolating just below most people’s fields of vision. Trump didn’t have to call on the Forces of Darkness to bring it all out into the open. His mere being there was enough of a catalyst to make what was already there readily apparent.

Those who liken Trump to the fascist leaders of Europe in the inter-war years give him too much credit – not just because he is hardly a theoretician or orator or tactician of their caliber, but also because, unlike them, he neither created nor took over an organized, ideologically-driven movement.

All he did was act out mindlessly, like a spoiled adolescent, overturning many a (metaphorical) rock under which (metaphorically speaking) some of America’s foulest vipers had been dwelling. With Trump’s blessing, they then slithered out into a world in which they were given more or less free rein.

By that time, the Republican Party that Ronald Reagan, the GOP’s icon for all seasons, transformed for the worse, had become little more than a conglomeration of white supremacists, evangelicals, free marketeers, and male chauvinists of all genders.

Its leaders used Trump to advance their various causes, and he used them back – to advance himself, the only cause he cared about. It was a marriage made in hell.

But it lasted until and then after Trump’s electoral defeat, not so much because Trump held it together, but because today’s Republicans are too morally and intellectually decrepit to stand up against a petty tyrant wannabe.

This was plain enough long before Trump came upon the scene, but far too many Trump voters, tens of millions of them, refused to see it. Were they too proud to admit that they had been suckered or does stupidity and willful blindness run rampant in their midst? Most likely, both; all of the above and more.

Be that as it may, over the past four years, there have been defections aplenty, but not nearly enough to make a significant difference.

With the January 6 “insurrection” that Trump incited seared in every TV watcher’s mind, it has become so clear that even ridiculously stubborn, willfully blind Republicans could hardly fail to see it. Nevertheless, many still do not.

What a sorry lot those Republicans are! They give excrement a bad name.

This goes triple for the Federalist Society’s golden boys, Josh Hawley, the A-student Senator turned Trump successor wannabe, and Ted Cruz, of whom, as someone once said, “loathsome” attaches to his name the way that “fleet footed” attaches to Achilles’.

But even those two pale in comparison with Mitch McConnell. Before the pandemic broke out, it could have been fairly said of him that he has done even more long-lasting harm than Trump himself, especially but not only to the federal judicial system.

Yet this is what Biden, the mainstream Democratic Party, and their media flacks want to include in the unity they call for; what their sought after “bipartisanship,” their working “both sides of the aisle,” amounts to.

The truly sad thing about this is that, for the time being, they may actually be right – because, in the short term, there would seem to be no other way quickly to address the many clear and present dangers that the nation faces.

It would be different had Biden’s victory – or rather Trump’s defeat — reached beyond the presidential contest itself, enough to build on the 2018 Democratic gains in the House, and to flip the Senate decisively.

But, of course, this didn’t happen, thanks in part to the fact that the Senate, supposedly “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” is anything but. It is instead among the least (small-d) democratic legislative institutions in the so-called “free world.”

It makes a mockery of one of democracy’s lowest common denominator features, the idea that in democracies, majorities rule or, in other words, that in principle citizens have equal political influence – if not substantively, then at least in the formal, procedural sense that they all get to vote and that their votes count equally.

Thus California, with some thirty-eight million people, and Wyoming, with fewer than six hundred thousand, have the same number of Senators, two. California’s voters therefore have far less political influence in the upper house of Congress than Wyoming’s.

And because, in recent years, Republicans have done best in scarcely populated rural states, while Democrats have done best in states with densely populated urban areas, many times more citizens are represented by Democratic than Republican Senators. Yet, until the Georgia runoff elections evened out the numbers, Republicans, having a majority of Senators, ran the Senate.

Such is the state of political equality in our “indispensable” and thoroughly “exceptional” nation!

The problem is not just the rules of the game that our “founders” laid upon us. The Democratic Party leadership has a lot to answer for as well.

The problem is not just that, in the final analysis, the party they lead, though many times less odious than its duopoly rival, is, like its rival, on the wrong, the bourgeois, side of the class struggle. It is that, with few exceptions, neither the party’s leaders nor many of the rank-and-file Democrats they lead seem able to wrap their heads around the plain fact that “moderation,” their natural state, as it were, is not the way to go in the circumstances the nation now confronts; that so far from being “pragmatic” or wise, it is a recipe for defeat.

***

Biden won both the popular and the Electoral College vote handily, but only because with Trump being catastrophically and embarrassingly awful from Day One, and with him decomposing mentally in full public view towards the end of his term, Biden could hardly not have won – or rather Trump could hardly not have lost.

The remarkable thing, given the situation, was how short Biden’s coattails were. Thanks to Trump, Biden over-performed. On the other hand, House and Senate Democrats, having no Trump of their own, under-performed – not enough to cripple the Biden administration, but enough to assure that it will have a hard time ahead.

It is impossible to say for sure, but I would venture that had the Democrats run Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or even a garden variety ‘centrist’ with more imagination and charisma than Biden can muster that they would have done better in November and therefore that the road ahead would now be easier to traverse.

Even so, they would probably still be calling for “unity” – they are liberals, after all, and a liberal, according to Robert Frost, is “a man (sic) who won’t take his own side in an argument” — but it would be a lot easier going forward to disabuse them of the patently false but timeworn conviction that the smartest course for moving forward is to hug the center line.

It is a relief not to have to think all the time about Trump and the harm he has been doing, and not to have to worry that, in a fit of pique, he will set off a nuclear conflagration. Above all, in a plague year or two (with only a distant “light at the end of the tunnel” in sight) and with the economy tanking, the restoration of competency in government is welcome indeed.

The danger, of course, is that with Biden at the helm what we will be getting is a resumption of the political approach that made Trump all but inevitable.

Will the news in 2022 and 2024 dash the hopes raised in 2018 and 2020? Will Obama’s vice president be willing and able not to follow the lead of his former boss, whose thoughtful, nice guy, “no drama Obama” moderation caused the hopes he raised when running for office in 2008 to be sorely disappointed by the summer of 2009?

How likely is it, in other words, that, with the Big Eight Zero not far off, Biden will turn over a new leaf, becoming an exception to the rule about old dogs and new tricks? Biden’s centrism is the problem; ironically, though, it is also why we should not, at this point, dismiss the prospect of a new, more progressive Biden out of hand.

Centrists do not just occupy middle positions on political spectrums. They are also persons who, in times of crisis, move one way or another depending on how the wind is blowing – not so much for opportunistic reasons, but because it is in their nature to seize opportunities for advancing causes that they support when crises occur, and suitable occasions arise.

There is a strong wind now blowing leftward within the Democratic fold, enough to generate an intraparty crisis, because there is at present no way for genuine progressives determined not to marginalize themselves to be anywhere but in the Democratic Party.

They cannot go elsewhere, but neither can they be kicked out, because, despite the best efforts of the party’s grandees, Democrats desperately need to retain their allegiance; they need their numbers, and their energy and their organizing skills.

It is thanks to them, more than anything else, including (possible) changes for the better in Biden’s thinking, that explain why his choices for cabinet level and other top offices have been, on the whole, far better than one would have expected a few months ago. This is plainly the case for positions that deal with economic and social policies, and with the environment.

On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy personnel choices have been what one would expect from a mainstream Democrat trying to play all the bases at once. His team is shaping up to be a hodgepodge in which all the major strains of foreign policy establishment thinking are thrown together; neocons (Victoria Nuland, no less), liberal imperialists (Hillary’s harpies and more), Brzezinski-Carter human rights hypocrites — the whole kit and caboodle.

What they have in common is Russophobia and anti-Communism – no matter that Communism has been gone for decades or that Russia, in its own way, is as capitalist as the United States, or that its main foreign policy objective is to protect its national interests from Western, mainly American, predation.

There is much to deplore about the political regime in Russia and in Russian diplomacy, much that bourgeois parties can use to their own advantage or to the advantage of the money interests they serve. But from a realist point of view, none of it makes Russia an adversary of the United States. It is the American political class that has done that.

The foreign policy officials Biden is assembling comprise more of a “team of rivals” than anything Obama, supposedly the promoter-in-chief of that Lincolnesque idea, threw together, but they are all moved by a determination to keep our overripe capitalist economy from going on the skids through the good offices of a bloated, unnecessary, and ultimately very dangerous military-industrial-national security state complex.

Though seldom acknowledged, this has been a fundamental objective of American diplomacy at least since the end of World War II. Arguably, it has been its most fundamental objective.

Thus, Team Biden is comprised of Cold Warriors in search of an enemy.

The former Soviet Union served that purpose well, but it imploded into oblivion. When it did, China was still too underdeveloped economically to be of much use. Now, its economy is so intertwined with our own that there are limits to how much use it can be. Trump and his people never quite understood that. If Biden and his don’t either, we could be in for serious trouble ahead.

The Muslim world won’t do either. For one thing, it has grown old; for another, fighting Islamists around the world just doesn’t cost enough. For another still, wars in the Middle East and Africa are hard to keep “cold” and too “asymmetrical” to fire the imagination of Western publics in ways that could mobilize popular support for high levels of military spending.

And so, for want of anything better, the Cold War mongers have set their sights on Russia again. It is a desperate choice, but also a natural one, inasmuch as Vladimir Putin is easily demonized and because, for generations now, Russophobia has been as American as apple pie.

For whatever reason, nefarious or not, Trump tried to strike a more peaceable note, making the greater evil party the lesser evil in this one respect. However, his efforts succeeded only in causing hissy fits in ruling class circles and in the board rooms of major corporate media.

For his entire life, Biden has been a Cold War monger second to none. He has supported the use of military power even when others would forbear. Thus, Obama was against “stupid wars,” like the one George W. Bush and Dick Cheney waged against Iraq. Biden was not.

Biden has definitely not turned a new leaf in that regard, but, to his credit, his Cold War mongering has so far been less gung ho than one would have expected, and far less gung ho than viewers of MSNBC and CNN have come to expect from their talking heads.

It is the same with another area of special concern, Israel-Palestine. In the past, Biden has been largely indifferent to the injustices Palestinians suffer, and second to none in his support for the ethnocratic settler state. But there are indications now that he will not go nearly as far as Trump did in letting Benjamin Netanyahu and his co-thinkers, and the Israeli government generally, call the shots.

Antony Blinken has already said that the Biden administration will not move the American embassy back to Tel Aviv; that it will remain in Jerusalem – in accord with the wishes of most Jewish Israelis, Trump’s son-in-law and his felonious family, Trump’s real estate cronies, and the retrograde Zionist donors Trump has been courting.

But there are also signs that Biden will be less disposed than Trump to let Israel lead America around by the nose on Iran. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that he may even try for some rapprochement with Iran, just as Obama did at first, before pressure to tow the Israeli line became too much for him to resist.

***

There are large swathes of the party Biden now leads that are way out ahead of him. If he really does want to go bold, as seems to be the case, he would have plenty of wind behind him.

Indeed, if he wants to govern at all, he may have no other choice. He and the mainstream Democrats who still run Congress will likely find that to get anything done at all, they will have to become like the enemy and then some — using every means at their disposal to get their way.

Republicans, after all, are not about to change their stripes. All they know how to do is stack the courts with troglodytes and obstruct legislation that doesn’t enrich their donors or endanger the environment.

Now is therefore hardly a time to jibber-jabber on about “reaching across the aisle.” Better to promote the idea of sending Mitch McConnell off to some lake in deepest Kentucky, where he could sit himself down on a rock, and spend his days catching flies.

Meanwhile, the filibuster must go – not just to deal with Republican obstructionism now and in the foreseeable future but also to make the Senate a tad less undemocratic. And the time is ripe for “bipartisanship” to be ridiculed, not venerated.

As long as the GOP exists, it will have to be engaged, one way or another. But it is crucial, when doing so, to bear in mind that, on the merits, their ideas are not worth taking seriously, despite what goody-goody liberal pundits might tell us, and that the only good Republicans are … well, there are no good Republicans.

Now is the time too to push forward with DC statehood, and Puerto Rican statehood, if they want it; and to expand the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary.

DC statehood would of course add two Democratic Senators to the upper chamber, but it would also address a scandalous and indefensible situation – that the capital city of a country founded by a revolution in which the principle of “no taxation without representation” played a prominent role has no representatives with voting rights in either the Senate or the House. Puerto Ricans are American citizens too; their situation runs afoul of that principle as well.

As for expanding the judiciary, there is no other way to counteract the harm McConnell and Trump have done to the government’s judicial branch. There are also compelling efficiency reasons for adding judges, inasmuch as, at present, there is too much business for too few judges to handle properly. There is also ample precedent for enlarging the courts.

For now, though, in the midst of a massive health and economic crisis, the first order of business for Democratic House and Senate members, and for Republicans with backbones, is to start the process of bringing Trump to justice, while implementing as much as possible of the Biden agenda, and even exceeding it whenever they can; to become, as it were, jurors in the morning, legislators in the afternoon, and critical critics after dinner at night.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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