President-elect Joe Biden was ambitious in advocating the vision of uniting a country that many see as strongly, if not hopelessly divided. While Biden received more than 80 million votes, the highest number of votes any presidential candidate ever received in US history, Trump won the second-highest vote of all time and won the support of over 70 million American voters.
And I don’t think I’ll have to spend a lot of time here to find out how the soon-to-be ex-racist and sexist fueled divisions and sharpened the fault lines in US society and culture.
So how can we even speak of “unity” when the divisions seem so deep and poisonous?
And what does “unity” mean anyway? Let’s start here.
It would be a start just to be on the same page as reality and truth. For example, if we could agree that climate change is a real threat to life as we know it, or that COVID-19 is no joke, that would be huge; it would be an important and by no means a simple kind of entity. This would not mean that we would agree on the best public health agenda, energy policy, taxation in support of public order agendas, etc. But to be on the same page in terms of fundamental reality would be a huge step forward for the nation.
A shared understanding of reality provides a foundational unity to even have conversations about policy approaches to addressing challenges that, if not shared by all, are shared by the majority of Americans.
As you may have noticed, Trump’s political strategy has been to avoid, if not completely obscure and distort political discussions. It didn’t even bring a political platform to the Republican National Convention on which party members could approve or debate.
So a measure of Biden’s success in uniting the nation will be to what extent he can shift the focus of Americans to political issues rather than personality issues.
Again, including Americans in this conversation would not be an easy task, but is it a possibility?
Let’s take a few topics like health care and public education to evaluate the opportunities and pitfalls for unifying Americans in a political debate based on a firm understanding of our shared reality.
Recall that after Trump emerged victorious in 2016, many of his constituents were suddenly afraid of actually doing what he had promised to do, which was overturning Obamacare. At the time, Sarah Kliff and Byrd Pinkerton, who reported for Vox, were visiting Whitley Country, Kentucky, where the uninsured rate had dropped 60 percent due to the Affordable Care Act but 82 percent of voters backed Trump.
A Trump voter they interviewed, Debbie Mills, a small business owner whose husband needed a liver transplant, represented many voters in the country who lived in fear and disbelief that Trump would deliver on his election promise. She said then:
“I don’t know what we’ll do when it goes away. I think i thought that you know [Trump] wouldn’t do that. That they wouldn’t do this wouldn’t take away the insurance. To know that it affects so many people’s lives. I mean, what if you can’t … buy, can’t pay for insurance? “
Like many voters, for whatever reason, Mills didn’t take Trump seriously when it came to overturning Obamacare:
“I think we really didn’t think about him canceling or changing or taking that away,” she said. “I guess I just always thought it would be there. I thought that once it was made law, it couldn’t be changed. “
Now fast forward to the 2020 election. Many Trump voters did not seem to have learned the lesson. Perhaps they ignored John McCain’s negative voice that saved Obama from “meager repeal” in the summer of 2017.
Early last October, the New York Times reported how many Trump supporters, deeply interested in affordable health care as the top voting topic, believed that Trump would protect coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, despite a political record clearly shows the opposite.
One voter said: “I heard from him that he would proceed with pre-existing conditions so that people would not lose their health insurance. It made a huge difference to me and my husband. “
Here is a foundation for unity, suggesting that many Americans, whether Trump or Biden supporters, share an important political position.
The recent elections also show that the possibility of political unity among voters across party lines in terms of public education is real.
In Michigan, Democrats Darrin Camilleri in 2016 and Padma Kuppa and Matt Koleszar in 2018 switched the seats of Republican state officials in their respective districts, causing the erosion of public schools in those districts due to gross underfunding partly due to Betsy DeVos Long-standing charter school movement in the state.
Also in 2018, Kansas voters elected Democrats Laura Kelly as governor and Sharice Davids to the House of Representatives, who campaigned for public education after Sam Brownback’s cuts to education were so outrageous that they were unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court were classified.
In November 2019, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Governor Matt Bevin for his support for teachers and public education in many ways, while Bevin ran on a platform that refused to raise education funding.
And these are just two points. American families need and want health care; They want high quality schools for their children. They want clean air and water and a safe environment and a habitable world.
Of course, there are gross and ugly divisions that Trump has exacerbated. There are also broad and diverse points of unity that Trump has been covering up and that the media has not focused on sharply or frequently enough.
Health care, education, and a safe environment do not attract the attention of Trump’s racism, sexual misconduct and general hatred.
But Americans may be more united than we think when it comes to the challenges and policies we need.
Biden has at least a starting point and a way forward to deliver on his promise of nation unification.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.