The eternal, futile, and dangerous demand for "unity"

Yesterday, when looking at news of the One Nation rally, I checked our Headlines and found John Avlon’s takedown at The Daily Beast.  Avlon is a talented writer and a sharp commentator, but over the last couple of years Avlon has let himself become obsessed with the fringe.  Avlon certainly applies this fairly to both sides and writes entertainingly as he does:

The stated intention of the One Nation rally was to promote an “antidote” rather than just a left-wing “alternative to the Tea Party,” according to NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. The reality fell far short of that unifying goal. …

Instead, the rally offered a snapshot of the fragile coalition that is the contemporary far left—a dizzying array of activist organizations and identity politics, with financial muscle provided by the labor unions who bused their members in.

Speakers like Schultz, Jesse Jackson, and Van Jones are stars in this crowd. But for all the chanting about how “the people, united, will never be divided,” this turnout was small, and suffering from an enthusiasm gap compared to the conservative populists who crowded the mall a month ago for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally. Yes, the music was better and the crowd more diverse, but this rally provided plenty of evidence the Wingnuts on the loony left are alive and well.

Avlon then proceeds to give his readers a rundown of the nuttier signs and slogans touted at the rally as a means of discrediting the entire event.  And don’t get me wrong; any event that requires unions to provide buses to get people to attend has plenty of room for criticism as a “grassroots” rally.  But these events take place in public venues, which means that anyone can show up with idiotic signs, either as a deliberate attempt to discredit the others who attend in good faith or just to exploit the media attention for their own purposes.  International ANSWER, a neo-Stalinist group that Avlon uses as a prime example of his thesis in this piece, organizes its own events and also shows up at others where attention actually gets paid.

It’s a cheap shot when people use the LaRouchians and bigots who hijack Tea Party events to carry their lonely signs as emblematic of the movement, and it’s equally cheap in this instance.  The speakers and organizers are fair game, of course, but these rallies don’t take place in private venues.  There are no tickets and security at gates to ensure that the freak shows stay on the outside.

Nor should there be.  In a sense, we want the nutcases to carry signs and show up at public rallies, at least to some extent.  If people feel free to air their views in the public marketplace of ideas, they’re less likely to find other ways to be heard, or to impose their radical views on everyone else without their consent.  Perhaps more importantly, it identifies the lunatics so we know who they are.

Dissent is essential to democracy and freedom.  In fact, democracy is built for the natural constant of dissent.  Avlon misses that in his conclusion, although certainly he’s not the only advocate of centrism to do so:

Extremes are always their own side’s worst enemy, in part because they end up serving as recruiting tools for the other party. The result right now is an absurdly distorted national debate where President Obama is called a communist by the far-right, while the far-left believes that he is a corporate sellout. That’s a tough spot for him to be in. And the long-term result may be a country that finds it increasingly hard to unite as one nation to meet the great challenges we face.

This country “united” in the political sense in one extended instance only: the presidency of George Washington, the unanimously acclaimed first chief executive.  The entirety of American political history has been one of open debate over mundane issues and far-reaching philosophies of governance.  Those debates started before Washington assumed office, and broke out into political parties after his retirement.  If anyone doubts this, watch the excellent documentary series Founding Brothers, or read the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers for reference.

The founders of this country designed government for debate, not for unity.  One does not need separate branches of government with independent checks and balances if one expects unity.  In fact, one doesn’t need free elections if one expects unity.  They were wise enough to know that a free people would never entirely agree on anything except the desire to live in freedom.  Calling for a free people to “unite” on issues of policy means one thing: I want everyone to agree with me.

We have seen systems that created unity, of a sort, over the past century.  They did so by stamping out dissent.  The 10:10 Global video provides an instructional look into how a demand for unity and consensus would work.  Unity on policy can be achieved in small groups, but once one gets beyond a few dozen people where the like-minded can keep out those with heterodox views, one cannot demand unity and freedom at the same time. As F. A. Hayek repeatedly pointed out in his seminal Road to Serfdom about central planning, a popular demand for unity puts people in charge who are most likely to impose it, because it has to be imposed in order to exist.  At the very least, this means that groupthink rather than individual liberty prevails, and usually requires the suppression of dissent, the punishment of the heterodox, and the end of freedom in any meaningful sense.

And heck, I want everyone to agree with me, too … but I hardly expect it, and it wouldn’t be that great of an idea anyway.  The tension in philosophical and policy debate makes everyone work a little harder at both, and reminds us of the limitations and dangers of such policy.  I may not agree with Glenn Greenwald much, to use one example, but he has been consistent on the dangers of government snooping in both the Bush and Obama administrations, when supporters of each seemed to discount those dangers as long as their own team ran things.  Tommy Christopher reminds us that there is always an individual human cost to government policy that cannot be discounted.  I don’t have to agree (and hardly ever do) to know that their arguments force us to address issues we would otherwise neglect, and hopefully give us a better product in the end.  And if we can’t provide an answer that convinces the electorate, we get another chance in the next cycle to do so.

Instead of worrying about disunity, let’s appreciate it as the natural state of free people, and thank our founders for crafting a system that works both because and in spite of it.  I’ll take disunity over the alternative every day.