As the United States continues to grapple with the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the tribal political battles that have characterized American politics pre-virus have shown no signs of stopping.
From House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) first attempt at a coronavirus relief bill containing long-desired Democratic wish list “provisions on federal elections, minimum wages, union regulations, and climate change” to President Donald Trump attacking former President George W. Bush on the grounds that “he was nowhere to be found” during the president’s impeachment trial, meeting the moment has proved difficult for the combatants in our entrenched partisan wars. It is a gross understatement to say that such antics are not the signs of a healthy politics.
Speaking of President Bush, he released a touching video invoking his own experience of national tragedy during 9/11 and reminding the nation that “in the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together.”
President Bush’s message is one worth reflecting upon because it speaks to a deeper point than simply singing “Kumbaya” with our ideological opposites in spite of the real and valid differences that remain. As the United States faces a once-in-a-century event that affects everything from our health to our social interactions to our economic well-being, we should also consider what the new normal ought to be for our politics.
National unity is the term often applied to such a vision, but it is a tricky concept. It means different things to different people and is often employed as a sleight-of-hand phrase meant to paint opponents as unreasonable partisans while your own position is elevated as virtuous and in the national interest. The Dispatch Editor-in-Chief Jonah Goldberg summarizes this meaning well, asserting that “Democrats recognize that the Republican understanding of ‘national unity’ means ‘winning on our terms,’ and vice versa for Democrats.” To avoid this, we should look toward something closer to national solidarity than national unity.
National unity is in the eye of the beholder, but national solidarity — a recognition of our common humanity from our communities all the way up to the national level — is a much better lodestar for our current politics of all-out destruction. The patriotic undergirdings of national solidarity make room for differences of opinion over how to respond to big challenges, but it also pushes us to forgive when those disputes are over and remember that we are more than combatants in an ideological arena.
To get a better sense of what this means, let’s look back to history. New York Times columnist David Brooks uses the United Kingdom during the Blitz as a framework for how Americans in the time of coronavirus should think about national solidarity. The situations are different in significant ways, but as Brooks observes, “the threat — whether bombings or a pandemic — ramps up fear, unpredictability, divisiveness, fatalism, and feelings of weakness and meaninglessness.” He continues that “nations survive when they can ramp up countervailing emotions and mindsets. […] This happens when they intensify social connection and create occasions for social bonding and shared work.”
Our politics is an indispensable space for this social bonding and shared work, and it will have to be if we expect to effectively handle the far-reaching societal fallout wrought by COVID-19.
President Bush’s video encouraging us to see each other with equal dignity and a common purpose in the face of the isolation and uncertainty of COVID-19 means recommitting ourselves to a politics that sees political differences as coming from a place of shared high hopes for our nation. For a post-virus politics to recover, we must remember that, as R Street Institute Senior Fellow James Wallner notes, “political outcomes happen whenever people gather to persuade one another, bargain, negotiate, and to compromise (enthusiastically or not).”
The absence of these qualities are at the heart of what has made politics before COVID-19 so fraught and unresponsive to major national debates. Recovering a sense of national solidarity in the wake of the pandemic may seem like an uphill battle, but it will be necessary as Americans face the task of rebuilding when the virus eventually does wane. If we want the COVID-19 recovery effort to avoid the all too familiar performative inaction on issues like the national debt, health care, and immigration reform, heeding President Bush’s reminder that “we rise or fall together” will be a vital first step.