“In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.”
~ Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”, Volume I (1835)
Presidential candidates promise to “unify” the country, roundly attacking their opponents for being “divisive” as if unification would remove America’s seemingly perpetual melancholy. I doubt you will see or hear a Democrat candidate within the next week without hearing at least one of them say those very words – or something darn near close. President Obama was fond of saying “this is not who we are” – and like a good many Americans, I still don’t know what he meant by that or even if he knew what it meant.
So, what do they mean? Unify America around what? If something is “not who we are”, then who are we? How is it possible to unify a country of nearly 333 million individuals of all races, faiths, genders, and so on? One must then ask if unification is possible or even desirable – and if it is, how much “unity” can a country withstand without falling into totalitarianism?
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that it was the nature of Americans to be at unrest. In Volume I of his “Democracy in America” (1835), he wrote:
“One can conceive of men having arrived at a certain degree of freedom that satisfies them entirely. They then enjoy their independence without restiveness and without ardor. But men will never found an equality that is enough for them.
Whatever a people’s efforts, it will not succeed in making conditions perfectly equal within itself; and if it had the misfortune to reach this absolute and complete leveling, the inequality of intellects would still remain, which, coming directly from God, will always escape the laws.”
How, therefore, can a diverse America – one far more diverse in 2019 than in de Tocqueville’s time – ever hope to find common ground?
If one accepts de Tocqueville’s observations as the truth, one can conclude that such restive diversity is the direct enemy of conformity, of unity. An individual can be satisfied in some things but rarely in many. He further observes that comity does not rest in the efforts to create equality, as such a thing cannot be created through law.
The answer lies in de Tocqueville’s words – Americans are so diverse and independent that unity will only be found in the smallest number of things; therefore, it is only achievable through agreement and fealty to the smallest possible set of principles that protect and benefit all. All other matters must be left to the individual and be guided by his own set of principles…and as long as one’s exercise of those principles do not interfere with another’s free exercise; people must resist the temptation to turn to the law as a balm for every other disagreement.
Obama’s admonition of “that’s not who we are” was never about principles we all agree upon; it was an attempt to shame Americans who didn’t share his views of the country. Any candidate who spouts off about “diversity” – a term equally as vacuous as the aforementioned phrase – and then tries to pull the “unity” card is being equally facetious and tendentious because the only way true unity can be achieved is to get government back in the can and bounded by the least number of laws possible.
Unity is a matter of choice, not of coercion.