In fact, there was no contradiction. In the United States, unity does not mean that one side gets everything it wants.
In a dictatorship, unity is easy; one must agree with the leader on all matters or suffer state retribution. In a pluralistic democracy, unity is the “most elusive of things,” Mr. Biden said in his speech, because policy disagreement is at the core of the system. The president bears no more responsibility to surrender his principles on entering the Oval Office than Mr. Cotton does sitting in the Senate. Both men promised to represent voters’ beliefs on the national stage, and both should try to advance them. It is in the manner of trying where unity can be found in a democracy — unity of democratic values, purpose and process.
The nation’s political system is designed to manage and channel disagreement peacefully and, ideally, with a level of respect and decorum. Power shifts, and policies change accordingly, but everyone accepts these moves as legitimate because of an overriding allegiance to the system. That system ensures that no one gets everything they want and everyone has a fair chance to appeal to the people.
Unity in such a system requires, first, that the actors within it recognize that one can disagree in good faith. Those with different views are not the enemy of the people, and they should be listened to seriously. Second,unity requires that politicians prioritize achieving things for the country over ruining their political opponents. They should look for win-win scenarios. Third, it requires respect for the process. Leaders should refrain from abusing the system to rout the other side, either when wielding power or obstructing its use.
Mr. Biden appears to be teeing up big initiatives that should appeal to many Republicans, if they intend to meet the president’s calls for unity with good faith. These include further covid-19 relief, historic investment in U.S. infrastructure and bipartisan immigration reform. Republicans will feel pressure to deny Mr. Biden wins of any kind and to paint his agenda as radical. Instead, they should look in the mirror. Their party spent four years indulging and enabling President Donald Trump, who at every turn sought to divide the country for political gain. Their sudden demands for comity, now that they are no longer in power, ring as cynical and self-serving.
Republicans should allow Mr. Biden to exercise the usual powers of the presidency without accusations that he is promoting disunity by advancing policies he campaigned on. They can note principled disagreements without resorting to divisive invective. Then they should seek to have their views represented in covid, infrastructure, immigration and other bills through good-faith negotiation. That’s what unity, in a democracy, should look like.