The UNITED States of America. Sounds great. A diversified people forging common goals for the common good and welfare of its citizenry.
Hardly any politician does not extol his or her commitment to unifying the country while lamenting, sometimes in extraordinarily harsh language, the divisive nature of his or her opponent.
Monday morning on NPR, Roger F. Villere Jr., chairman of Louisiana’s Republican Party, said the high hopes that an Obama presidency would bring the country together had not come to fruition, that there was more distrust now than before. He laid the blame squarely on Obama’s shoulders, ignoring Republican infatuation with the birther movement that questioned the president’s legitimacy for office, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s marching orders to try to make Obama a one-term president, disrespect by a GOP congressman during one of Obama’s speeches to Congress, the invitation to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal as a way of undermining Obama’s leadership, and continuing efforts to obstruct any Obama initiative including the naming of a replacement for the seat on the Supreme Court left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia.
But so goes our political discourse these days. Reality is not part of the dialogue. We seem to want unity; we wax euphoric for those halcyon days when it pervaded the land.
But really, people, it is hard to think of a time in our nation’s 240-year history when we enjoyed long-term unity. From the get-go our leaders took sides. They were so antagonistic to each other that our second president, John Adams, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, four bills that were passed by a Federalist-dominated Congress in 1798.[ As described by Wikipedia, the laws “made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act), allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous (Alien Friends Act) or who were from a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act), and criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government (Sedition Act).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_and_Sedition_Acts
When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams, a new Democratic-Republican Congress repealed all but the Aliens Enemies Act which, modified, remains in force today.
Differences existed even before the U.S. of A. came into existence. Not everyone in the 13 colonies favored independence from Great Britain. And after liberty was proclaimed and won, not everyone living in the 13 states enjoyed the fruits of liberty. Slavery stained our nation from even before its inception and its legacy divided us through the decades before and after the Civil War, manifested after the conflict by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, segregation, the fight for civil rights and voting rights, and most recently the Black Lives Matter movement.
America has been divided on the merits of temperance and Prohibition, on the suffragette movement, on the entries into World War I and World War II, on the combat in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, on the treatment of immigrants from Ireland, China, Eastern Europe and now from Muslim and Latin American countries, on treatment of Catholics, Jews and now Muslims, on the right to life versus the right to choose, on the meaning of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, on the balance between saving the environment and exploiting our natural resources. (For the sake of brevity I’ll stop the list here.)
Trump has latched onto a slogan of “Make America Safe Again.” Hardly anyone would reject personal safety as a lofty goal. But by declaring himself the “law and order” candidate Trump invokes the racial origins of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy to stigmatize Afro-Americans to appeal to white voters (http://wpo.st/-avm1).
Politicians stoke the illusion of unity, but the reality is unity might be achieved if political dialogue accepted the right of one’s opponents to hold and air contrasting principles. Here’s what Utah Senator Mike Lee told CBS News’ Scott Pelley after his side lost a convention floor fight to challenge the nomination of Donald Trump:
“We need to do things that united people do, which is respect each other’s opinions. Treat each other with dignity and respect and allow people to cast their votes, express their differences and then we move on.”
Sounds fair, but Lee has not accorded similar sentiments toward President Obama.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence was chosen as vice presidential running mate because of his potential to unite the party, especially evangelicals and social conservatives, behind Trump. Maybe so, but the real challenge for Pence and any candidate during this national election is whether they can unite the country.