Many Americans, if not most, want some type of national unity after the horrifying and despicable events of Jan. 6. But even if that’s what a majority of Americans want, accomplishing it will be extraordinarily difficult.

Last week’s events have exacerbated and intensified our partisan divisions, but they did not cause them. For years, activists on both the right and left have demonized each other as beyond the pale of reasonable discourse.

While rarely openly expressed in these terms, this undercurrent has been clear in polls. A Pew Research Center poll from September 2019 shows that across a number of characteristics, nearly three-quarters of both parties said they cannot agree on common facts. Majorities in both parties also say the other side doesn’t share nonpolitical values and goals with them. One can only imagine how these numbers look today after the events of the past year and a half.

This means that creating unity, if it is possible, must be an active process rather than something Americans passively resort to. Leaders of both parties need to look at their counterparts as adversaries, not enemies, and strive to find common ground rather than default into their respective silos.

It’s tempting to say that the burden of doing so should be equally shared. The riot last week makes that impossible. Republicans will need to make the first move to build trust so that national unity around common values is possible.

At a minimum, that requires acknowledging that the election was free, fair and reflective of the people’s will. That is the plain and simple truth, and Republicans ought to say it clearly even if they argue there were flaws. GOP leaders had hoped that passive resistance to President Trump’s nefarious aims was enough. It was enough to prevent Republican majorities in each of the contested states’ legislatures from challenging the results and appointing a competing slate of delegates. It is no longer enough in the present circumstances. Only open acknowledgment that the president and his sycophants lied or deluded themselves about the election will show Democrats and independents that Republicans understand the gravity of what happened.

It also requires open acknowledgment that the riot was not the result of antifa or Black Lives Matter protesters. There might have been some rogue infiltrators, but the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that MAGA believers, not the violent left, stormed the Capitol. Again, there are certainly degrees of culpability even among these people. But it was the Republicans’ side that ransacked our national temple, and no one else’s.

Democrats, however, must restrain their impulse for vengeance. They should accept true repentance with forgiveness. There should be no attempt to use this moment to restrict Republicans’ access to the media or to purge Republican voters from employment because of their political beliefs. Nor should there be any effort to attach substantive policy goals to forgiveness. American democracy, and all liberal democracies, rests on the idea of the “loyal opposition.” If Americans can be viewed as “loyal” only if they do not “oppose” those in power, genuine democracy has died.

The example of Britain during Brexit should be an example to follow. Passions ran deep for nearly four years. The country was nearly evenly divided between Remainers and Leavers, and each side viewed the other as intrinsically wrongheaded about its views. Each side mobilized and fought, and two general elections were waged over the issue. But rarely, if ever, did large numbers of even the most passionate activists question the fundamental patriotism of their opponents. The “opposition” was intense and bitter, but each viewed the other as “loyal.” Thus, when the 2019 election clearly established that a Conservative Party committed to Brexit had won, the tumult that had characterized the preceding few years ceased overnight. The people had spoken, the result was legitimate and normal political debate could resume.

We can rebuild the space for normal, intense political dialogue only if we rebuild the platform of shared citizenship upon which those debates can take place. Let us pray that leaders from both parties publicly commit themselves to this goal and, if necessary, face down their intra-party adversaries in its pursuit. If and when this occurs, only then can we begin to see the light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

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