Disunited We Stand, Firmer

Democracy is not about unity — it is about differing and dissenting

New US President Joe Biden mentioned ‘unity’ 20 times in his inaugural speech on January 20. So have innumerable past presidents. The mainstream US media are calling for unity after the bruising presidency of Donald Trump. But democracy has never been about unity. Above all, it is about legitimising dissent, and encouraging new controversies that some might call ‘opening new wounds’.

Democracy requires adherence to the law, including rules to ensure free and fair elections. But it does not require unity of ideology, outlook or narratives among political parties or voters. Indeed, it should reflect dissensions in

Out, Damned Spot!

The real objection to Trump is not that he destroyed US unity — that has never existed and never will — but that he challenged a fair election by inciting a mob to storm the US Capitol. That was violent, illegal and undemocratic. But even if Trump is convicted by the Senate, or later convicted for other crimes, the US will not return to a unity of parties or narratives. Nor should it.

Trump took dissent to violent, illegal extremes. Let that not mask the fact that democracies empower parties to dissent as bitterly and on as many issues as they like. They are not even obliged to stand united on constitutional rights — they can seek amendment of such rights.

Civility is a virtue, and Trump was extremely uncivil. But civility and respect for the law are not unity of policy, or even agreement on the truth. Almost half of all Americans believed in Trump’s narratives, which Democrats call ‘lies’. I would love societies with camaraderie between people of all social divides. A few homogenous societies come close to this. But many others — especially large, diverse ones like India and the US — have deep social divisions that cannot be wished away, and will necessarily be reflected in politics.

Any party can have an agenda of unifying social divides. But others can legitimately represent very narrow policies, religions, castes or regions. India is full of parties based on such sectarian divides. Yet, it is not undemocratic.

Indian opposition parties typically oppose almost any policy of the government, including those the opposition parties themselves backed when in power. You could call this opposing for the sake of opposition. But that is entirely democratic. Democracy is about empowered opposition, not unity. Indeed, a president or prime minister can neither demand nor supply unity.

A small homogenous society can be united on most things. External threats can also have a highly unifying impact on parties. The Cold War was an exceptional unifying force in the US for half a century. That external force has gone, and so internal cracks have widened.

The cracks have been exacerbated by the rise of the internet, enabling small groups to send their messages — including conspiracy theories, lies and hate speech — to billions of people at no cost, creating echo-chambers for their narratives. 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said there were no truths, only narratives. The internet has enabled innumerable groups to create their own narratives and ‘facts’.

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair

Trump did not create these conditions. Nor did he create the economic stagnation of blue-collar workers that ended the golden decades after World War 2 when living standards rose as never before for all classes, and all expected the future to constantly be better than the past. Trump discovered and harnessed the left-behind groups through the internet, groups once dismissed as ‘deplorables’ or fringe actors. His exit will not change that.

On assuming office, Biden issued — without consulting Republicans — 17 executive orders reversing Trump’s policies on the border wall, illegal migration, oil-drilling and other such issues; reversed Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Paris Climate Agreement; pledged to reverse Trump’s rupture with Nato allies; plans to pack the lower courts with pro-Democrat judges; and is prosecuting Trump in the Senate.

How on earth can this be called an attempt at unity? It is indeed democracy at work but is not unity. Nor should it be.

The US is unique in constantly calling for bipartisan agreement on issues. In most democracies like India or Britain, even the smallest majority is viewed as enough to justify major legal changes. Party members are not supposed to vote with the other side in the name of bipartisanship, and face expulsion if they do so. In India, they will legally be defined as defectors and lose their seats.

No, bipartisanship is not a necessary, or even desirable, feature of democracy. The US divides powers between the president and two Houses of Congress, which may be ruled by different parties. Voting against the party line is entirely acceptable. The Senate has the filibuster, a device to block legislation or appointments unless backed by 60% of legislators. But anything over 50% is good enough for new laws in most democracies, and appointments do not need legislative approval. US bipartisanship is an exception to, not intrinsic part of, democratic functioning. In India, a legislator defying his party whip in favour of ‘bipartisan consensus’ would be condemned as a defector.

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