If “change” was the central theme of Barak Obama’s campaign for the Presidency, “unity” was the ubiquitous corollary. He promised to unite us in solving the pressing problems of our time and to not allow ideology to divide us. This is a noble objective, but one that is doomed to failure. It is the same promise George Bush made (“I’m a uniter, not a divider”), and look how that turned out.
The promise will fail for various reasons. First, when Obama made it he seemed to always imply it was the political right that is bound by ideology and obstructing progress. He is a liberal on the far left of the spectrum and we are a nation where the majority define themselves as conservative and between the blue dog Democrats and the Republicans conservatives comprise the majority of Congress. He will have to move far toward the middle on social and economic issues if he hopes to be a lasting unifying force in America (I perceive him to already be in the middle on national security).
Second, while the process of shared problem solving is unifying, it works as a tool for unity only when (1) there is a shared agreement about the reality and nature of the problem, (2) there is a shared agreement on the priority of the problem, and (3) all parties believe their voice will be heard and respected. Ideology is a direct mitigating force in the first two factors and an indirect one in the third.
The reality is that people are united when they are conscious of shared values. They are most easily united when those values are tied to a pressing sense of need, survival for instance. Thus, we unite when we feel threatened, i.e., a terrorist attack or an economic meltdown, etc.. Our core values frame the essence of our self perception; they define who we are. They also determine our perception of what threatens our survival and what should be a priority in our lives. It is our values that shape the ideology we profess. This is not to say that everyone is consistent and congruous with their selection of an ideology. On the contrary, it is to say people are guided by core values that might not be easily expressed in an ideology; hence, some conservatives can vote for a liberal (or vice versa) if he or she taps into those deep values.
In short, ideology is nothing more than a systematized expression of values. We can set aside our ideology (i.e., liberalism vs. conservatism) only to the extent that we unite around a greater shared ideology, values that are threatened (i.e., liberty, justice, democracy). In situations other than grave crises it is our ideological differences that clarify our desires and the values that guide civilization. In a democracy we need healthy disagreement (disunity) in order to move forward with the best policies for all. These differences often serve not only to help us choose a direction, but to first recognize the need to move in any direction. They provide the energy for change and sometimes they save us from great error.
It is incredibly difficult to come to agreement on what the real problems are and what priority they should have, not to mention how to solve them without violating someone’s core values. It does not serve us well to view the minority voice as obstructionist and yet democracy is prewired to view them exactly that way. We can come together only to the extent we agree to honor each other by respecting our opposing views at least enough to give them serious consideration. When victory overshadows understanding we are destined to run ruff shod over the minority. It is not our differences nor their intensity, but what we do with them that divide us. This then becomes the Achilles’ heel for any President; time and passion stand in the way of considered listening and shared problem solving.
Let us choose to hope that Barak Obama is that rarest of politicians, one who will value everyone (specifically in Congress) enough to give them voice not only in how to solve our problems, but in the identification and prioritization of the problems. He seems to have the disposition for such listening.
Finally, he will fail because it will be out of his hands. The major problems of this country require Congressional action. It is the leaders and members of Congress who must learn to listen intently and with respect to each other. They must come to agree on the existence, nature and priority of our problems. And they must learn to do this with many of them having already established extreme dislike for each other. No matter how well intentioned and capable, this task is beyond any President’s ability. They all promise it; they all fail; so why do we fall for it? Perhaps it is reflective of the image of God that we continue to hope for unity. Surely it is the fruit of sin that we fight over our disagreements. Let us hope this will be that season of politicians learning to work together. Let us hope I am wrong in my pessimism.