Not Just Unity or Victory

The talk about unity keeps unfolding across our land, but is it worth anything? What do we seek in the name of unity? I have long argued that the political pundits and pollsters and professionals made more of people’s differences in this past election cycle than actually exist. As David Brooks said in a recent column:

The red and blue maps that have been popping up in the papers again this week are certainly striking, but they conceal as much as they reveal…In the first place, there is an immense diversity of opinion within regions, towns and families. Second, the values divide is a complex layering of conflicting views about faith, leadership, individualism, American exceptionalism, suburbia, Wal-Mart, decorum, economic opportunity, natural law, manliness, bourgeois virtues and a zillion other issues.

Strategies that play on people’s existing divisions too often dangerously pull apart the fabric of the nation and diminish our sense of social cohesion. At issue is whether leaders (and the rest of us) will have the courage to help people see what they might hold in common and how they can move forward together.

Still, that won’t be easy in today’s bitter environment. After last week’s vote, many people remain angry about the outcome. Others believe that the President should now take his victory and pursue his own brand of change – and never look back.

Indeed, last week on Wisconsin Public Radio, a caller was annoyed by my attempts to say that there is common ground to be found in the nation – and that we have an obligation to pursue it. The caller angrily asserted that the Democrats lost, and that they should now step back and capitulate. To the victor go all the spoils.

At times I fear the Democrats will simply capitulate, as many did after 9/11, or will now needlessly fight at each turn. Then again, I fear the Republicans will simply say it’s “my way or the highway.” Any way you cut it, the situation has the potential become a terrible mess.

But neither unity nor victory should be the ultimate goal. The pursuit of unity, for its own sake, will push aside the real differences that do need to be aired out; robust debate can lead to new ideas and innovation. And the pursuit of victory alone can lead to blind ambition, which never results in anything good.

The people I talk with in scores of communities across the nation seek progress on a host of concerns, including public schools, health care, jobs, immigration, and the budget deficit. While there are no clear answers to these and other challenges, my experience tells me that people have the capacity to see beyond narrow labels and even themselves on these issues – if they are asked. The question remains – Who will have the courage to call us to address these challenges?

For now, we remain lost in our own narcissism of seeking political gains and personal positioning. Despite the bitterness of the campaign, it doesn’t have to be this way.