• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Unity In A Democracy

January 2021

Intermittently during his campaign, and repeatedly during his Inaugural Address, Mr. Joseph R. Biden—that celebrated under-study to Barack Obama and beloved son of Delaware to whom, as of Wednesday, the honorific “president” now formally applies—emphasized the need for “unity”.

While speaking from the Capitol Building before a vacant Washington Mall, an eerily quiet, yet still majestic corridor from which, in light of an ongoing pandemic, thousands of enthusiastic supporters, curious onlookers, and aggrieved partisans were prudently barred, Mr. Biden repeated the word “unity” a total of eight times. The devoted team of speech writers with whom the aged and—for this and other reasons—often ineloquent Biden doubtless conferred, feigned no reservation in the repeated use of the word. The bland scribblers by whom his lifeless oration was crafted, from whom every thinkable political platitude seeped, intended the word to flow into the ears of a listening republic over and again.

With unity, he proclaimed, “we can do great things, important things”, a somewhat trite and flavorless statement, to which he quickly appended the “great things” he had in mind: “we can right wrongs”, he said; “put people to work in good jobs”; “teach our children in safe schools”; “overcome this deadly virus”; “reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all”; “deliver racial justice”; and “make America the leading force for good in the world”.

The greatness and the importance of these enumerated “things” is, I think, frightfully susceptible to dispute. For instance, one might strain himself in trying to imagine exactly what repugnant “wrongs” cry out for correction, for whose prompt amelioration, a renewed sense of unity is all that’s really needed. It seems as if the valiant exhortation to “right wrongs”, and to remedy unidentified ills, were but an empty and anemic aspiration, one to which we’re all welcomed to add a dash of our own color.

As for the placement of people in “good jobs”, occupations for which they’re inarguably qualified, and from which they stand richly to profit, I’m not quite sure how unity contributes to that end. That which is known, however, albeit very seldom openly acknowledged, is that unemployment levels for the past few years (a time during which, as we’ve been reminded countless times, we were most definitely not unified) have been delightfully low. Across all segments of the population, among whom, universally, a higher income and an elevated chance of prosperity are boons hungrily to be desired, this is an encouraging statistic. Indeed, it’s one of which the prior president (never bashful in his boasts of market success and economic victory) was persistent in reminding us, about which, if only quietly, we might look back and be somewhat grateful.

In haste, one might skip ahead on this list of great and important “things” to that of “delivering racial justice”, to which unity, no doubt, can apply its indefatigable effort and insuperable strength. The presupposition of this shocking aim, of course, is that racial justice is currently being withheld. It’s as though it were stuck at the warehouse of ideals and fundamental rights, a bigoted storage unit in which such things are trapped while impatiently awaiting their conveyance to your door. Unity, you see, is the sturdy vehicle atop which such a heavy thing as “racial justice” will eventually ride, a currently languid car by which, propelled by the gasoline of unity, it’ll be delivered on the glorious morning of a new day.

As you can well see, unity is the answer to all things. As Mr. Biden proclaimed, with Ciceronian confidence and the type of resolve of which only the elder statesman is possessed, “unity is the path forward”.

To what remote destination, you might ask, one can’t yet know. What’s clear, however, is that in its absence, “there is no peace, only bitterness and fury”, two ugly characters by which so frightening a void will most certainly be filled. Indeed, every important field of learning—to which the intellectual triad of history, faith, and reason distinctly contribute—show the way, “the way of unity”. Unity, so it appears, is the obvious answer upon which so many beclouded philosophers failed to gaze, and the consummation of all purpose and striving onto which innumerable divines failed to grasp. If only they’d known, everything in the world of ideas points to unity (an insight upon which, thousands of years ago, the recondite Pre-Socratic, Parmenides, might’ve been the first mystically to have stumbled).

I fear, with but a mention of Parmenides, I risk sliding down a metaphysical path up which, once at the bottom, I’ll never be able gracefully to climb. Let me stop there, then, if that be the embarrassing, precipitous fate against which I’m destined to struggle. I’ll avoid the fall, re-trace my step, and find again the road of political philosophy along which we jointly walked, within whose limits, we felt the embrace of a firmer security.

It’s there we find Mr. Biden pronouncing what I considered to be his speech’s most puzzling line. To overcome such flagitious and, in his opinion, systemic problems as “political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism”, that “most elusive of things in a democracy” is required. That thing, as you might’ve guessed by this point, is nothing other than unity.

The problem is that unity and democracy, so far as we understand them, are not merely unharmonious, but utterly incompatible. In their awkward search for a relationship, the closest intimacy to which “unity” and “democracy” can aspire is that of strange bedfellows. They’re neither natural friends nor enamored lovers, acquaintances nor paramours between whom congenial feelings exist. They tend rather toward repulsion than attraction, distance than proximity, and it’s only by the most artificial and coerced of means by which they’ll finally be brought together.

Democracy, at least as we understand it in its liberal form, is seldom known to cultivate a unified spirit. It’s as fragmentary and diverse as the number of citizens upon whom it bestows the holy gift of suffrage, and shines the luminous glare of political recognition. Democracy, rightly understood, is a form of government whose power flows directly from the people by whom the particular state is composed. Between it and them, there is no mediating force, no sieve of aristocratic representation or intellectual mesh by which countless inane whims and ignoble suggestions might be filtered out. Each person has the unique ability to offer an opinion and argue for a position with which, in all likelihood, not even his closest neighbor will completely agree. There is, at its heart—indeed, at our heart—a fundamental and ineluctable disunity.

As the staunchest advocate of his own peculiar thought, an idiosyncratic conviction to which, if he be enflamed by the example of the shameless demagogue or the silver-tongued senator, he may hope to attract adherents, but never perfectly simpatico friends, the man in a democratic society acts independently of all others. Though he may seek and eventually discover a majority by which, given the rules of the game, his preferred policies might be better advanced and his desires for an agenda satisfied, he begins as an atomized being. He begins liberal, unencumbered, and free. As such, he’s someone whose mind is so different in scope, and whose passions so various in temper from those of his fellow neighbors, that unity, wherever found, will be both fleeting and rare.

Thus, in a democracy, a broad, latitudinous, swelling unity is all but a dream. If, god forbid, so many sentiments did manage to converge and recognize their collective will, and begin to flex the gathered strength their burly weight, a despotism of the majority would quickly ensue. “Unity”, in adopting the strange image of this hideous, muscular form, would no sooner yield to tyranny, the inherent vice into which this particular form of government is known sometimes to transmogrify. When it does, as Aristotle, Polybius, and Tocqueville have warned us, it proceeds to crush all minority dissent by which it might be threatened or, failing that, merely bothered. It becomes an insufferable, violent state by which the obstinate “un-unified” are not only occasionally mistreated, but brutally oppressed.

We witness, then, the development of a different species of unity, what we might call “conformity”. A shiver overtakes us with the mere passing mention of so detestable a word. Conformity is the inherent vice with which unity is associated, by which it can often be corrupted. With little exaggeration, conformity is the end of liberal society, the darkening of enlightened thought, the cessation of free expression, and the death-knell of the republican spirit. Its mere suggestion is the dangerous first step along a path at whose end democratic despotism waits. It guides us toward a perilous and slippery slope down which too many well-intentioned polities have fallen. We must learn from their painful injuries and recognize their unwholesome results as possible ends about which ever genuine liberal, and every watchful conservative, ought to be anxious.

The type of abstract, ambiguous, somewhat vexed unity to which Mr. Biden made continued reference is, I think, possible only through conformity. For this reason, despite the sincerity with which his talk of wanting to be a president not only for the exclusive enjoyment of his Party, but for the collective happiness of all was adorned, the notion must be rejected.

Better would it be for him and, more importantly, for our nation as a whole, if he were to humble his aspirations and reduce in number, audacity, and scope the ideals around which he wants an increasingly-divided population to unify. The fewer these things, the better. The strength of our unity increases in proportion with the smallness of their quantity. We seek the precious few, but splendid and concrete things around which we’ll all gladly unify, not the progressive abstractions of which our clouded, embittered minds can’t hope to draw an image.

Such things as the maxims of our Declaration of Independence, the immortality of our inalienable rights, the beauty of our tripartite polity, the constraints of our Constitution, and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers should not only suffice, but sustain us through these turbulent and rather dark times. These are the things, the “great and important things” (to use the current President’s words) around which we’ll never hesitate to unify, by which our ship of state will be forever ballasted.

Mr. Biden would do well to promote them, as they’ll lose neither the tight grip of our attachment, nor the undiminished ardor of our love.

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