Most Americans have been tired of partisan conflict for decades. George W. Bush ran as a “uniter, not a divider,” and Obama, too, campaigned as someone who could bring us together. In office, however, each ended up governing as a hard partisan. Bush gave us a prolonged war in Iraq that Democrats wanted out of and mistook a narrow reelection as a mandate for Social Security reform that most Americans neither understood nor wanted. Obama pushed the country leftward on a host of issues, including health care and immigration, even as his determination cost his party control of Congress, many governorships and hundreds of state legislative seats. Both decided that when the going got tough, the talk of unity got thrown aside.
Red-state voters are not racist rubes enrolled in a personality cult. They are tens of millions of real Americans just like the tens of millions of Biden voters. They have real ideas about how the United States should look and what values Americans should cherish. Democrats may disagree strongly with many of them — that’s what makes them Democrats — but genuine unity means taking a hard look at what conservatives and Republican believe and finding out what elements of those can be accepted or tolerated.
Freedom is the first value that has to be understood and grasped. Not all Republicans or Trump voters politically prioritize freedom from government constraint or diktat, but millions do. They don’t want government ordering their personal lives, whether that means owning a gun, running a business or — yes — wearing a mask. Democrats obviously don’t place the same political priority on freedom from legal requirements, but no serious effort to work with Republicans is possible without respecting this fundamental value.
Personal autonomy and responsibility are other core Republican values. Trump voters generally believe they are responsible for their own lives and expect others to act similarly. This is what leads them to want to protect the ability of families, churches and other institutions to make their own decisions. It also leads them to view government programs with some degree of distrust, as it can often appear to Republicans that programs usurp an individual’s ability to chart their own course and shield them from the consequences of poor decisions. At the extreme, this can lead to a callous view of people who are genuinely less fortunate or unable to cope with life’s vicissitudes. But in the main, Republicans are fair people who are happy to help others through government so long as people truly deserve help and aren’t gaming public compassion.
Human dignity is another core Republican value, and one perhaps most threatened in the current political environment. Conservative Christians feel under assault from a left that too often sees them as oppressors rather than the people whose ancestors and values built this nation. Working-class voters don’t want to be told that their lives are disposable on the altars of global trade or green ideology, redeemed only if they go to college and become assimilated to the educational Borg. Biden may not use rhetoric such as Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” line, but too many people behind him do. You can’t unify America if you believe that 70 million Americans are irredeemable racists, proto-fascists or tyrants who want to make women “Handmaids” and place Black people “back in chains.” In both word and deed, Biden will need to show he understands this and find ways to reassure Republicans that they won’t be written out of our national story.
Building real unity requires hard work and compromise. It will mean not pressing progressive concerns too far and too fast in touchy cultural areas. It will mean avoiding the temptation to bypass a Republican-controlled Senate via executive actions of dubious constitutionality. It will mean acting less like Bush and Obama and more like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, whose genuine bipartisanship addressed serious problems such as Social Security’s solvency and the perennial budget deficit. Partisan differences will and should remain, but common ground can be found if Republicans are treated with understanding and respect.
The Trump era has been the most divisive in recent U.S. history. Biden was elected largely to put this period behind us and get on with solving our common problems. He says the right things now. Let’s hope we don’t discover later that his spirit is willing, but his flesh is weak.