US President Joe Biden was propelled to the White House on a message of unity that sought to strike a stark contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump’s divisive leadership.
But what first served as a demarcation in a crowded Democratic primary field – and then as a distinct counterpoint to Trump’s polarising brand of politics – risks becoming a vacuous platitude now that Biden has taken office, political analysts have said.
Instead, to reach the cohesion he pledged as a presidential candidate to pursue, Biden will need to define what “unity” actually means in a country where 74 million people wanted Trump to have a second term – and where a recent deadly riot has further divided the already polarised nation.
“If we mean by unity, something like consensus, or consilience, and agreement, and everybody getting in line, I think that’s actually not only not desirable – it’s bad for democracy,” said Robert Talisse, a professor at Vanderbilt University who focuses on political philosophy.
Instead, Talisse said Biden must pursue unity around the idea “that democracy is the proposal that we can live together as equal citizens and achieve a relatively just, stable, decent society, despite the fact that we really disagree sometimes about what government should be”.
At his inauguration, Biden addressed a nation reeling from the deadly storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters egged on by the former president’s ill-fated and evidence-barren campaign to overturn the election results.
“Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury … No nation, only a state of chaos,” said Biden, who decried “political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism”.
The US, he said, faces “crisis and challenge … and unity is the path forward”.
But his call for cohesion quickly became a cudgel, with bipartisan outrage about the Capitol storming giving way to accusations, notably from Republican Senator Rand Paul, that Biden’s words were “thinly veiled innuendo” calling all Republicans and conservatives “white supremacists”.
Biden’s opponents have used his push for “unity” to decry some of his early actions as president, including the signing of more than 40 executive actions and the introduction of an ambitious $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan that he is open to passing without bipartisan support, as well as Democrats’ decision to move forward with Trump’s impeachment trial.
“We started seeing from Biden’s opponents – very subtly, but nonetheless pretty clearly – an interpretation that understood ‘unity’ simply has the avoidance of divisiveness,” Talisse told Al Jazeera.
“Now, ‘unity’ in that sense is opportunistic; it enables Biden’s opponents to charge Biden is failing to be a unifier, simply in virtue of the fact that Biden is enacting policies that they don’t like,” he said.
That creates a “trap” in which Biden fulfilling his campaign promises is allegedly causing disunity, and in which “‘unity’ is really just putting on a straitjacket and not doing anything that your political opponents are going to criticise,” Talisse said.
Since taking office, Biden has further attempted to define unity, saying it is eliminating “the vitriol” and ad hominem attacks, while trying “to reflect what the majority of American people … think is within the fulcrum of what needs to be done to make their lives and the lives of Americans better”.
Speaking to reporters on January 25, Biden also attempted to make a distinction between disunity and partisan policy differences.
He has since signalled he is open to Democrats pushing through his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through a controversial process that will only require the party’s simple majority in the US Senate – and not a bipartisan 60 votes – to pass.
“If you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines but it gets passed, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t unity,” Biden told reporters, “it just means it wasn’t bipartisan.”
‘Price of white unity’?
Biden’s calls for unity have encompassed a platform of racial justice.
Such calls for equity have historically met with the accusation that they come at the expense of white Americans, said Juliet Hooker, a political scientist at Brown University who focuses on race and politics.
That underscores the challenge of bringing people to a place of viewing each other as equal players in democratic discourse without excluding the progress of Black and other marginalised people, Hooker told Al Jazeera.
She pointed to the historical period after the US civil war as one in which the “price of white unity” after the country’s north and south were reconciled was the “relegation of the rights of African Americans”. The resulting Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in many southern states- laws that were enforced until 1965, and their legacy is still felt today.
“So there is a question … of how are we conceiving of unity and what the price of that might be?” Hooker said, adding that the challenges of inclusive unity were particularly visible in the blowback to Biden’s inaugural condemnation of white supremacists.
“When Republican politicians say that his denouncing of white supremacy is somehow is denouncing the Republican Party and that that goes against his message of unity … The first question is, why do you feel interpolated by that?” she said.
“The second question is, what is their understanding of ‘unity’ that they are seeing it as capitulation or acquiescence to a kind of far-right politics animated by white grievance?”
Prominent Black leaders have also cautioned Biden against avoiding the upheaval needed for systemic change in the pursuit of unity. Civil rights icon Jesse Jackson put it bluntly in an interview with the New York Times: “Our needs aren’t moderate.”
Opportunity amid polarisation
With Twitter noticeably quieter in the absence of Trump’s daily tweets, Biden has an opportunity to “cool the rhetoric” and focus on policy, said Arie Kluganski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who focuses on politics.
Recent polls show that large swaths of the population still believe Biden was only elected through election malfeasance following Trump’s persistent unfounded claims that widespread voter fraud took place.
But Biden may be particularly suited to the moment, Kruglanski told Al Jazeera, as his working-class background and history of bipartisan cooperation over decades in Congress will be “difficult to demonise”.
A Morning Consult poll conducted after Biden’s inaugural speech found that 74 percent of voters polled supported Biden’s call to end political division. Seventy-one percent of Republicans who watched the speech supported Biden’s message, according to the poll, compared with 51 percent of all Republicans.
Meanwhile, a Monmouth University poll released on January 27 found that 71 percent of Americans would prefer to see bipartisan cooperation in Congress.
Still, with midterm elections just two years away, Kruglanski said the US is in near-constant campaign mode – “which means party competition, as opposed to focusing on things that unify the country”.
“He will have little cooperation, despite his skills, despite his agenda, despite his totally correct idea of lowering the temperature,” said Kruglanski. “Psychologically, the more extreme the rhetoric, the greater the tendency to be radicalised.”
One way for Biden to overcome those challenges, said Talisse, is to “awaken the democratic imagination” and remind people across the US that “America is an idea that they must participate in.”
“It’s an aspiration, the idea that we can live together as equals, sharing together in the project, despite the fact that we fundamentally sometimes severely disagree about what the government should be doing,” he said. “He’s got to tell that story.”