We do need to unify America, both among the public and our policy makers, particularly our partisan Members of Congress. However, there are some people whose minds are like concrete, thoroughly mixed and permanently set – often based on false information – who cannot be convinced to share in a unified vision of America. We will need to ignore them at times and at other times to counter their destructive messages and acts.
What we have that truly unites us all are the promises of our democracy: its principles and ideals of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. As the preamble to Constitution states, the United States of America was formed to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
These principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional – not what was actually established in 1789, not what it looks like today, and not what it has been at any time in between. The aspiration to achieve this vision is what is exceptional and we have struggled to live up to it to this day.
There is great diversity in America – which can and should be one of our strengths – and significant differences of opinion on how to achieve the promises of our democracy. We need to approach these differences rationally and collegially, with an eye on the overarching vision.
To unify America, we need a unity of purpose, driven by our vision for our democracy, and to be delivered by government of, by, and for all the people. Unifying America requires an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to “promote the general welfare”. Loyal opposition is fine but not destructive opposition, not obstructionism, nor radical revolutionaries trying to tear down our democratic institutions and processes.
In today’s economy and society, we need to reconceptualize the commitments to liberty, freedom, and the promotion of the general welfare. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) in his State of the Union Address in 1944 argued that the “political rights” guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had “proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness”. FDR proposed an “economic bill of rights” to guarantee equal opportunity and freedom from want that included the:
- Right to a job and a fair income that could support a family,
- Right to a decent home,
- Right to health care and health,
- Right to social security in old age, sickness, unemployment, and injury,
- Right to a good education, and
- Freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies.
To unify America, we need to work toward liberty and freedom for all built on economic security and equal opportunity so one’s choices (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) in life are not constrained by poverty, economic deprivation, or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education.
To ensure liberty and freedom for all in our new democratic republic, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was adopted in 1791. These rights remain critically important. However, we need to review the implementation of some of them in light of current technology and current politics.
On freedom of speech, we need to figure out how to regulate free speech on social media; to figure out what is the social media equivalent of yelling “FIRE” in the middle of a crowded theater. Recent events have made it clear that unbridled free speech on social media has contributed to violence and terrorism (i.e., speech that puts people in fear or psychological distress). In addition, social media have contributed to the dissemination of harmful misinformation. How to appropriately control speech on social media – allowing robust speech and conversations while limiting harm – is something we need to figure out.
Freedom of speech in our democracy, where all people are promised equality, means giving equal volume to every voice in America. Giving a bullhorn to those with money and a muzzle to those without money is antithetical to our vision for American democracy. Current legal interpretations equate spending money with free speech, including spending by corporations (not just spending by human beings). This needs to be reconsidered if we want to unify America.
Freedom of religion was meant to allow each individual to practice his or her own religion without the government dictating what an individual could believe or practice. Today, legal interpretations have gone beyond this and, for example, given employers the right to deny contraceptives and other health care to women because of the employer’s religious beliefs. Legal interpretations have also given health care provider institutions and individuals, who are licensed by the government, the right to deny both services and information to patients based on the provider’s religious beliefs. If we want to unify America, freedom of religion should not impede an individual’s right to make decisions with full information and with all choices available to her or him. Individual’s choices should not be dictated or constrained by others’ religious beliefs.
Justice for all means that everyone’s treatment in our society and justice system should be equal and fair, and that the rule of law should be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Anyone and everyone who violates the law must be held accountable. If some people are allowed to violate the law with impunity and others are prosecuted and punished, there won’t be unity. A dramatic, historical example is that after the Civil War we failed to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable. We allowed them to return to power in state and local governments. The result was Jim Crow laws and the re-subjugation of African Americans. This underscores the importance of holding white supremacists and racists accountable for their domestic terrorism and other violations of the law today, 150 years later.
Justice for all also means that if some people have received unfairly harsh treatment from our laws and criminal justice system, there cannot by unity until those wrongs are acknowledged and corrected, including providing just compensation.
Unifying America means providing equal opportunity to everyone, particularly to every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us. One test for a just society is what ethicist John Rawls called the veil of ignorance. He defined a fair society as one where, if confronted with a veil of ignorance about our position and role in society, we would be willing to accept anyone’s position and role in the society. As an early childhood advocate, I’ve presented this as thinking that you are the baby that the stork is about to deliver and if you are comfortable being delivered to any parent in the society, then it’s a fair society. But if there are some parents (or for the previous description, some positions and roles in society) that you would not want to be delivered to or put in, then the society is unfair and unjust, as it does not provide equal opportunity for everyone.
If people truly want to unify America, they must be committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without this, there can be no unity.
In my next post, I will discuss these topics more specifically in terms of public policies and actions that are needed to unify America.