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President Joe Biden has been more than explicit in his call for unity, which has been acknowledged by Americans on both sides of the aisle. Ironically, the only thing that Americans seem to be united about is that they think Biden should approach unity differently. 

They agree on this so much that two different articles were published with the title, “So Much for Unity” — one chronicling how Biden has abandoned unity when he spoke of “Neanderthal thinking,” while the other one calls on Biden to encourage the passing of a COVID-19 relief bill in the Senate without a Republican vote. But other than this one agreement, Biden’s presidency has managed to alienate conservatives and progressives for drastically different reasons. 

Republicans believe unity is compromising between the two parties so that the Democrats won’t pass progressive policies, which, to the Democrats, would be the opposite of unity. Progressives (and Biden) want unity with their wing of the party, shifting policies further left, which is exactly what the Republicans fear. 

Neither the Republicans nor the progressives have approached unity correctly. Each side has co-opted the meaning of unity to fit into their policy agendas. Both ignore what the American people want for their political gains. Republicans — 78% of Americans, including 64% of Republicans, want $1,400 stimulus checks, and 68% of Americans support the $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Progressives — a plurality (41%) of Americans want Biden to prioritize unity over progressive policies, while 29% of Americans want him to prioritize the progressive policies that he prioritized on the campaign trail. And even if Americans did want these policies, centrist Democrats in the Senate make it impossible for these policies to even become law. 

Biden should promote policies that can be passed, rather than capitulate to Republicans and progressives and propose policies that are either further right or further left. Such legislation will include liberal policies that Republicans will decry as anti-unification and that progressives will say isn’t enough, but considering the makeup of the Senate, these policies are what can be passed. But this doesn’t solve the problem of uniting the country or the politicians’ rhetoric of Biden’s plan for unity.

Ideally, party leaders on both sides would use non-divisive rhetoric to assure their constituents on how much they want to unify the country. But this is not the case. There are many bad-faith actors in politics, including our politicians, who refuse to cooperate with the other side and purposefully misconstrue their opposition’s message. It is clear that we should not look to our politicians for a model of unity. In this current age, politics will be unhelpful in creating a new American culture. Americans will instead have to accept that if we cannot unite over policy, we will instead have to work towards that ideal elsewhere.

Biden believes unity is changing the culture of the country, and he is aware of how challenging this will be. But unity doesn’t have to be accomplished by legislation and governance. Rather, it can be done by bringing Americans together and opening a discussion of why people support what they believe in. 

Congress does not have a constitutional or traditional obligation to work to end polarization — the role of Congress is to make laws. But in situations of extreme division, people must be willing to take on duties that they typically do not hold. Everyone in the country, including our senators and representatives, is compelled by their American citizenship or residency to work toward bringing the country back together. However, we cannot rely on our politicians to do this work for us. It is our duty as Americans to work to unite the country. 

Since the country doesn’t agree on what unity means or what it should look like, we have no metric by which to judge Biden’s performance or the status of American unity. In order for the country to truly be brought back together, a cross-section of the country must be brought together to define what we want our country to look like. 

We must establish points of similarity and agreed-upon ideas of what it means to be an American. We must listen to each other and seek to understand why other people believe what they believe. It doesn’t begin and end with policy, as politicians would have us believe. In fact, it is possible for Congress to pass the policies it wants without input from the minority party while the country becomes united. But everyday Americans, not federal politicians, are responsible for this unity. 

Lydia Storella can be reached at storella@umich.edu.

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