“The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president,” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently declared, “but the unification of the American people.”
Treacle like this has been a mainstay of presidential candidates for decades. But is it true? Or even possible? And if so, is it desirable? The answer to all three questions is no.
Buttigieg’s description of a president’s job appears nowhere in the Constitution. But more importantly, ideological ambition and national unity cannot be reconciled in the presidency.
Listen to the Democrats running for president. They all say they want to unite the country.
It’s not just Democrats. George W. Bush campaigned on being a “uniter, not a divider” but won re-election in no small part by opposing same-sex marriage.
Barack Obama made his name on the national stage while a mere state senator with a brilliant speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. He proclaimed, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America.”
In 2008, Obama won the presidency on a vow to unify the country. Did he succeed? If he had, we wouldn’t have seen the tea parties or the election of Donald Trump.
Speaking of Trump, he too tried to make the case for national unity.But here’s the thing: Trump’s florid nationalist touches seemed unifying to Americans sympathetic to his agenda. But they horrified many Americans opposed to it in equal measure.
That’s the rub. Democrats recognize that the Republican understanding of “national unity” means “winning on our terms,” and vice versa for Democrats.
Right now, on the left and the right, politicians, activists and intellectuals are trying to marry sweeping policy proposals to what Hillary Clinton and her guru at the time, Michael Lerner, called a “politics of meaning.” On the right, such efforts go by many labels, from “nationalism” to “post-liberalism” to the most recent entry, Sen. Marco Rubio’s “common good capitalism.” On the left, which has been at this game longer, the old standbys of “social justice” and “socialism” are most frequently used.
Americans discard political disagreement for the sake of unity only when confronted with extra-political emergencies. When the country is attacked or when there’s a grave national disaster, the nation rallies around a specific goal. At all other times, a democratic nation is in glorious disagreement about what the government should do. The place where most of this fighting is supposed to resolve itself is Congress. Sure, presidents can ask Congress for things. But they don’t get it just because they’re president.
What are presidents supposed to do amid all the bickering? The answer lies in the job title: They’re supposed to preside over it.
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