Commentary

Joshua Heath | Harsh Reality: We Unite by Dividing

I love the idea of unity in America, the ending of the polarization and the attacks that so disturb us all.

I just don’t see any evidence, when I look at history, that it’s really possible. Consider the last 150 years, when was a major political issue — outside of foreign policy — solved by debate, by both sides coming together over a beer and working out their differences? This rarely ever happened.

We ended slavery through a civil war, in which the opposition was forced to accept emancipation at the point of a gun.

Franklin Roosevelt built a modern welfare state not with help from conservatives, but by overcoming their bitter opposition. The right only embraced the New Deal after enduring defeat after defeat. Then they finally gave in and accepted the changes it had wrought, out of political necessity.  

As a result, we had a short golden period in the 1950s and ’60s of bipartisan cooperation, in which both sides came together to launch major initiatives like the federal highway system and the war on poverty.

Often pundits point to this as proof that unity is really possible, but that’s shortsighted. This collaboration came about because the Republicans had to adjust to the new world Roosevelt created. Not because they wanted to. 

Once Ronald Reagan came on the scene, they quickly reverted back to form and embraced a strident conservative vision.

It is certain that some of us can sit down with a friend on the other side and figure out areas of agreement on various issues. I have many decent Republicans in my own life who I can do this with. But that’s not the same thing as liberals and conservatives coming together.

For today’s GOP is not motivated by friendship, they seek victory. 

The right wishes to destroy the Democratic Party and enact as pure an agenda of theirs as possible. The only language they understand is the language of power, and that is how Democrats must speak to them.

We must beat the GOP in enough elections to the point where they realize, like what happened during Roosevelt’s era, that they have to accept progressive policy in order to politically survive. 

That’s how you achieve unity, by first dividing and defeating the other guys so well and so often, they have to unite with you, or else be locked out of the halls of power indefinitely. 

Now that doesn’t mean we should demonize our right-wing friends, family and neighbors. That’s wrong. We should be able to separate our enmity for the GOP leadership from the feelings we have for the Republicans we meet on the street. We can like and love them, while having contempt for the ways of the conservative elite.

But it is foolish to continue to cling to this vision of unity that will never come true. 

President Obama tried to bring us together; his stimulus bill included hundreds of billions in tax cuts, the Affordable Care Act was modeled after a right-wing proposal developed at the Heritage Foundation. And his broader domestic agenda was the sort of pragmatic vision embodied by past Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

How did conservatives treat him in return? With sheer and utter hatred, called him a Kenyan, obstructed his entire program, and routinely shut down the government as a means of getting their way.

The GOP will treat a future Democratic president in the same exact fashion, if they pursue Obama’s unifying approach.

So it’s time, Democrats, to give it up. Unity is a mirage, an illusion, a unicorn. We get the other side to agree with us by winning election after election. Instead of spending time trying to bring the parties together, we would best be served by organizing our own base. 

That’s the sad, bitter truth of it.

Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.

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