President-elect Joe Biden campaigned aspirationally on a vision of uniting a country many see as severely, if not hopelessly, divided. After all, while Biden amassed over 80 million votes, the most votes ever tallied by any candidate in a presidential election in U.S. history, Trump hauled in the second-most votes ever, finding the support of over 70 million American voters.
And I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time here elaborating the many ways the soon-to-be former racist and sexist in chief fomented divisions and exacerbated the fault lines in U.S. society and culture.
So how can we even speak of “unity” when the divisions seem to cut so deeply and venomously?
And what does “unity” even mean? Let’s start here.
Simply being on the same page as to what constitutes reality and the truth would be a start. If we could agree, for example, that climate change is a real threat to life as a we know it or that COVID-19 is not a hoax, that would be huge; it would be an important and by no means simple kind of unity. It wouldn’t mean that we would be united in agreement about the best public health agenda, on energy policy, on taxation to support public policy agendas, and so forth. But being on the same page in terms of basic reality would be an enormous advance for the nation.
A common 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 a majority of Americans.
Trump’s political strategy, you might have noticed, was to steer clear of, if not completely obscure and distort, policy discussions. He did not even bring a policy platform to the Republican National Convention for party members to affirm or debate.
So, one measure of Biden’s success in unifying the nation will be the extent to which he can shift Americans’ foci to matters of policy, not personality.
Again, drawing Americans into this conversation would be no easy feat, but is it a possibility?
Well, let’s take a couple of issues like health care and public education to assess the possibilities and pitfalls for unifying Americans in a policy debate rooted in a firm understanding of our shared reality.
Recall that after Trump emerged victorious in 2016, many of his voters suddenly found themselves terrified that he would actually do what he promised, which was to repeal Obamacare. At the time, Sarah Kliff and Byrd Pinkerton, reporting for Vox, visited Whitley Country in Kentucky, where the uninsured rate had declined by 60 percent because of the Affordable Care Act but where 82 percent of the voters supported Trump.
One Trump voter they interviewed, Debbie Mills, an small business owner whose husband needed liver transplant, represented many voters in the country living in fear and incredulity the Trump would follow through on his campaign pledge. She said at the time:
“I don’t know what we’ll do if it does go away. I guess I thought that, you know, [Trump] would not do this. That they would not do this, would not take the insurance away. Knowing that it’s affecting so many people’s lives. I mean, what are you to do then if you cannot … purchase, cannot pay for the insurance?”
Like many voters, for whatever reason, Mills did not take Trump seriously when it came to repealing Obamacare:
“I guess we really didn’t think about that, that he was going to cancel that or change that or take it away,” she said. “I guess I always just thought that it would be there. I was thinking that once it was made into a law that it could not be changed.”
Now fast-forward to the 2020 election. Many Trump voters seemed not to have learned the lesson. Maybe they didn’t pay attention to John McCain’s negative vote that saved Obama care from a “skinny repeal” back in the summer of 2017.
Early last October The New York Times reported how many Trump supporters who deeply cared about affordable healthcare as a top voting issue, believed Trump would protect coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, despite a policy record clearly demonstrating the opposite.
One voter said: “I’ve heard from him that he would continue with pre-existing conditions so that people would not lose their health insurance. It’s made a big difference with me and my husband.”
Here is a basis for unity, suggesting many Americans, whether Trump or Biden supporters, share an important policy position.
Recent elections show as well that when it comes to public education, the possibility for political unity among voters across party lines is a real one.
In Michigan, Democrats Darrin Camilleri in 2016 and Padma Kuppa and Matt Koleszar in 2018 flipped Republican-held state representative seats in their respective districts by foregrounding the erosion of public schools in those districts due to a gross underfunding caused in part by 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 ran on support for public education, after Sam Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court.
In November 2019, Democrat Andy Beshear defeated always-Trumper incumbent Governor Matt Bevin largely, by many accounts, because of his support for teachers and public education, while Bevin ran on a platform that refused to increase education funding.
And these are just two issues. American families need and want health care; they want quality schools for their children; they want clean air and water and a safe environment and habitable world.
Of course there are gross and ugly divisions Trump has exacerbated. There are also broad and multiple points of unity Trump has obscured and the media has not focused on sharply and frequently enough.
Health care, education, and a safe environment don’t grab attention the way Trump’s racism, sexual misconduct, and general hate do.
But Americans may be more unified than we are led to believe when it comes to the challenges we face and the policies we need.
Biden at least has a starting point and a path forward to achieve his pledge of unifying the nation.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many 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, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.