Following the attempted political assassination of several GOP members of Congress this week, calls for “unity” echoed through the halls of power.
Democratic and Republican leaders alike offered up their ruminations on the matter — ”ruminating” not in the sense of offering profound thoughts on the latest tragedy, but rather, as cows “ruminate” on regurgitated cud. That an American citizen would take the ruling class’ dishonest and hyperbolic partisanship seriously enough to actually start shooting congressmen is tough for the political class to stomach, so for now, they chew on their hopes for national unity while promising to temper their rhetoric.
Such calls for “national unity” in the wake of violence are nothing new, and as I heard this latest chorus of “Kumbaya” reverberate around the country, I couldn’t help but snicker. I couldn’t hold back my laughter because I suspect too much about American government, too much about the meanness and bad faith of contemporary American politics, too much about the very nature of human beings’ relationship to political power to take American politicos’ calls for unity, love, and respect seriously. I have nothing against unity, love, kindness, and respect (and I certainly do not condone citizens randomly shooting members of Congress), but I cannot take the power-hungry seriously when they use the language of peace and community to advance their national ambitions of political control.
Political invective, per se, is not the problem — the drive for national solutions is. Even if the political class softens their rhetoric for a time (don’t hold your breath), they will sooner or later find themselves at one another’s throats again as long as they continue to nationalize every political issue under the sun. There is too much power at stake to behave otherwise. In fact, I expect we will soon see that rhetorical game whereby partisan “uniters” criticize anyone who disagrees with their political projects as “dividers.”
Contrary to popular political opinion, “national unity” is not synonymous with basic human decency and peace among men. Quite the opposite. But as long as “our” political leaders continue to conflate the two, a cruel irony will be at work here. The more America’s political leaders try to “unite” the nation through political power at the federal level, nationalizing every issue in the process, the more divided the nation will become. The United States is too diverse to be treated as one big happy family ready to march in lockstep.
The political class’ appeals to American ‘family’ and ‘unity’ is merely a means to obscure what’s really on the agenda— an agenda that goes far beyond the purview of our actual families, villages, townships, cities, and states. The political establishment continues to falsely believe a diverse nation of 300 million-plus people, a nation of nearly 20,000 actual cities, as well as countless families and cultures, can be managed like a singular political body without negative consequences. If only we surrender more of our liberties and governing decisions to Washington D.C., says the political class, “the people” of the United States can be prodded into unity — as long as we are allowed to chew on a bit of happy talk and watch a charity baseball game.
No doubt, how we speak to one another as fellow human beings is important. Indeed, culture and rhetoric are important. And, yes, though politics may often be downstream from culture, politics can also pollute the river of culture and discourse if allowed to become too pervasive. Immense political power has a way of rendering men suspicious and jealous of one another. And once politics comes to define a people through the power of a central state, all that is left is an impending battle over whose culture will be imposed through the power of that state.
In the face of such a looming war, it is no surprise that people often despair only to hurl invective, material threats, and people see actual bullets towards “the others” as the source of their angst. In such a world dominated by national political power, it is understandable that politicos, whether elected officials or disgruntled campaign volunteers, see anyone who opposes their national projects as a threat to humanity.
But the tyrant in you is the tyrant in me, and if we are not careful — if we keep offering the American people the immense national power to command and control their fellows — even our reactions against tyranny and violence will tend to mutate into movements to destroy one another for power’s sake.
If we truly wish to unite the American people, we must abandon our greedy nationalist daydreams. We must decentralize political power away from Washington D.C. and truly embrace the diversity of the American populace. We must reduce the potential power we have over one another so that tolerance for those we disagree with may flourish absent the threat of political coercion. Let California be California. Let Texas be Texas. Let Vermont go their own way and Alabama go another way, and so on.
Furthermore, we should go beyond the idea of states altogether. Local governments can be just as tyrannical as national governments despite their limited geography. Rather than first saying, “We are all Americans,” “We are all Alabamians,” or “We are all Californians,” suppose we instead say:
“We are all individual moral agents, each of us with our own unique tastes and talents, each of us possessing the flame of our innate freedom, and we can do as we please as long as we respect one another as free individuals.”
If one day that does become our motto, dare I say, what a statement of human solidarity it would be.
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