'Unity' doesn't just come from what Biden does. It comes from what he doesn't do.

  • Joe Biden’s focus on “unity” has drawn criticism from the left and the right.
  • But unity isn’t just about policy. As Trump divided with his speech, Biden seeks to unite with his.
  • Words matter, and Biden doesn’t use his to make people feel “triggered.”
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

I like Joe Biden’s rhetorical focus on “unity,” but it has detractors on the right and the left.

“So much for unity!” is a Republican refrain when the president does things they oppose — even if those things are shown to be broadly popular in public opinion surveys (like permitting openly transgender people to serve in the military) and even if those things are so obscure that they couldn’t possibly be a meaningful source of division among the public (like firing the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.)

Republicans also aren’t thrilled about Biden’s intention to press forward on a coronavirus relief package without Republican votes if necessary, saying that a partisan vote would undermine the “unity” idea. It’s worth noting though that the president unified a large majority of the public behind the idea that there should be another roughly $2 trillion package, even if he can’t unify the Congress.

Leftward criticism of Biden’s unity calls is more muted — Gallup finds Biden’s initial job approval rating among Democrats is 98%, higher even than what Donald Trump claimed to achieve among Republicans — but you do sometimes hear warnings that “unity” could mean too much compromise with conservatives.

But I think all these analyses of unity are too focused on public policy.

Words matter

To think about how Biden is uniting, we should look first at what Donald Trump did to divide.

Sometimes, Trump divided with policy. Trump’s effort to repeal Obamacare was divisive. His immigration actions were very divisive, at least until migrants were prevented from entering the country and images of their plight were no longer all over television.

But above all, Trump divided with his mouth and with his Twitter account.

He insulted and ranted and belittled, and by and large, people didn’t like it. Trump’s style was a reason that public approval of him and his overall performance lagged approval of his handling of the economy. Perhaps more importantly, the constant cacophony of lib-owning increased the intensity with which Trump-objectors objected to him. Nearly everyone who told pollsters they disapproved of Trump told them they disapproved of him strongly. 

Joe Biden unites the country by not trying to “own” conservatives.

Biden doesn’t dunk

You don’t have to behave like Trump and indulge the temptation to dunk on people whose opinions or values differ from yours. Going for viral point-scoring moments doesn’t win elections or make for good governing. For instance, during the Democratic primaries, Sen. Elizabeth Warren received a town hall question about gay marriage: What would you say to a voter who says he has a faith-based objection to it? Her response was, “Well, then just marry one woman, I’m cool with that.” Then she added, “If you can find one.”

This moment was a few years too late for Upworthy, but it went viral anyway. Warren had the “perfect response,” said Mashable. But what’s the point of dunking like that? What does it do besides increase the intensity of your opponents’ opposition?

Joe Biden has a progressive record on LGBT rights, including having essentially shoved Barack Obama out of the closet on his support for same-sex marriage in 2012. But he doesn’t feel the need to dunk about it, or about other topics. Not dunking is how he stays unifying while being progressive in a divided country.

Unity doesn’t mean agreement, it means respect

“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.”

This vision of unity doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything, and it doesn’t mean we’ll be happy about everything the government does. It doesn’t mean everybody will like Biden or the job he does as president. But it does mean being more polite to each other so we’ll feel less provoked, less offended, and less angry.

To persistently win over the public and not seem cynical, that stylistic choice needs to be paired with endeavoring to govern in a way that pleases most people most of the time. Biden is seeking to do that, too.

We have all been through a terrible year, but this is a time of great hope. Good things are happening and are about to happen in our economy and in the fight against the coronavirus. If that trend continues, there should be a significant opportunity for good feelings in this country.

By setting a tone of politeness and calm, Biden is helping to create an environment where those good feelings about conditions in our country can be accompanied by better feelings about each other. That’s what unity means.

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