The Magazine

The Unity Fantasy

The donkey and the elephant are not about to lie down together.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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"To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn--I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too."

--Barack Obama, November 4, 2008

"Today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent: To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."

--George W. Bush, November 3, 2004

He was a college professor with strong political opinions--two marks against him right there--but even so he seemed to be a very smart man. Like all but 17 of America's college professors, he was an Obama supporter. He had noted my skepticism.

"But don't you see Obama has the potential to be a unifying force," he said. "He could bring the country together, the way Reagan did to win the Cold War."

I didn't know what to say. How do these things get started? Reagan as a unifying force?

I spent a lot of time during the Reagan years in faculty lounges, on college campuses, with men and women just like this professor, and I don't remember Reagan as a unifying force. Just about everybody I knew hated him--really couldn't stand him, with a teeth-grinding, skin-crawling disdain. Even beyond the leafy lotus land of higher-ed, he was acknowledged by admirer and critic alike as a "polarizing presence." Weekend after weekend, protesters swelled our great cities and hoisted placards calling him either a psychopath or a buffoon (they could never decide which). His foremost political adversary, Tip O'Neill, said he "had ice water for blood." His landslide reelection victory in 1984 was impressive, but even then, at the zenith of his presidency, more than 40 percent of voters wanted to give him the boot. For that matter, his victory in 1984 wasn't as big as the victory recorded in 1972 by Richard Nixon. Now there was a unifying force.

Only in retrospect has Reagan been tagged as a twinkly, grandfatherly presence, a firm but gentle leader who transcended ideology and brought us together to defeat the Soviet Empire. Things didn't go so smoothly at the time. In his dealings with the Soviets, for example, Reagan was hampered at every step--first by liberals for being too rough, then by conservatives for being too soft. The firing of the air traffic controllers, the huge tax cuts of 1981, the huge tax hike of 1982 (in the middle of a recession!), the nuclear freeze movement, aid to the contras and to the mujahedeen, the "three million" homeless, budget cuts, the invasion of Grenada, the Iran-contra scandal and the subsequent calls for impeachment--the real story of the Reagan years is a story of endless contention, much of it bitter, wrenching, and, to a squeamish public, unpleasant to watch.

What fogs our memory and makes the retrospective Reagan seem like a unifying force is his success. Success, they say, has a thousand fathers, and we kid ourselves into believing we all of us were papa to the Reagan revolution. According to today's popular accounts he won the Cold War and touched off a great economic boom, so of course the country stood unified in support. Who, after all, could have argued with such improbable accomplishments as they took shape? Everybody loved him!

Trust me, though: They didn't.

Our infatuation with "unity" is a recurring delusion of American politics. Among the many examples are the hapless attempts that political geeks make year after year to form third parties that will transcend ideology and return us to our natural, prelapsarian state of cooperation. Ross Perot capitalized on the delusion by telling voters they could join together, hire a managerial expert to run the government "like a business," and do away with a political class that was driving them apart (and not paying enough attention to him). The most recent and consequential example of it is the mesmerism of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Unity is a phantasm raising hopes for something that can't be delivered--or that, once delivered, would be so un-American it would scare us half to death. Yet unity was Obama's theme. The sales pitch was a proposition that seemed self-evident: The only way "to get things done" and "move this country forward" was to "bring us together," just as we believe Reagan did even though he didn't.