Many people frame the ideas of division and unity around political polarization, which has grown in recent years. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in November:
“A month before the election, roughly eight in 10 registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine in 10 — again in both camps — worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”
But this seems understandable to me. Political polarization has increased as the percentage of nonwhite people in America has increased. So, as identity politics takes on more of a central role in politics — Republicans electing a white-power president after Democrats elected a Black one — it stands to reason that there would be a strain.
By the way, America is expected to be equal halves white and nonwhite by 2045.
I don’t object to this form of division at all. I don’t want to be unified with anyone who could openly cheer my oppression or sit silently while I endure it.
Furthermore, equality in America has a history of being divisive — from freeing the enslaved, to recognizing Black citizenship and granting Black suffrage, to expanding women’s suffrage, to establishing Reconstruction, to establishing and then abolishing Jim Crow, to our present state of criminal justice and mass incarceration.
People now regularly invoke names like Martin Luther King Jr. when talking about equality, as if there was always a consensus around the issue, as if he wasn’t incredibly unpopular, particularly among conservatives, when he was alive. A Gallup poll taken just two years before King was assassinated found that only a third of Americans had a favorable opinion of him.
Some people point to Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address when talking about how to unify a country across differences. Lincoln closes the speech by saying:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”
What they don’t say is that in that same speech, he expressed support for the Fugitive Slave Act as a way of showing conciliation to Southern slavers.