A Unity of Goodwill
By: Daniel Baisier, Class of 2022
Unity: it seemed to be the Biden campaign’s favorite word. Since January, it has also become a subject of mockery by Biden’s critics. When Congress passed a $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus bill along party lines and when Biden took jabs at Republican-backed changes to voting laws, Republicans joked about whether they were seeing the supposed “unity” that Biden had promised. In other words, they criticized him for failing to achieve a unity that includes Republican voters and politicians supporting him.
To be fair, these critics arguably have a point. We can choose to identify unity as synonymous with bipartisanship or with 80+% public support. And that definition is certainly intuitive, logical, and defensible. We’ve even seen blips of this type of unity in recent history. Examples include the recent U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, March 2020’s COVID stimulus, and several post-9/11 actions like the USA PATRIOT ACT, the authorization of the invasion of Afghanistan, and the authorization of the invasion of Iraq. In short, this type of unity has materialized.
But it also hasn’t been sustainable. In all of the aforementioned instances, partisan warfare soon resumed. It seems that—absent some great national crisis—unity of this sort has been hard to come by in the 21st century.
Instead, I propose a more realistic and sustainable type of unity: a unity of goodwill. Unity, when conceived of this way, consists of one core pillar: good-faith, thoughtful consideration.
Let’s break that down.
The element of “good faith” means that everyone involved in a policy disagreement approaches that discussion with the intention of solving the problem at hand. They might find that the disagreement lies in identifying what the problem is, but even that fundamental disagreement can be a good-faith one. Good faith also requires that parties not enter a discussion seeking to “win” an argument or embarrass an opponent. I will be the first to admit that this part is not easy. I love to argue, and I can almost always find some way to dig in my heels on my position. However, we have to resist that temptation. We have to keep our focus on honestly seeking to solve the problem at hand. Finally, we have to acknowledge that our opponents—no matter their beliefs—are approaching the discussion from a place of good faith. If we don’t, then we can easily discount their beliefs as ill-intentioned and therefore shut down any chance of productive conversation.
The element of “thoughtful consideration” entails careful consideration of facts and arguments. This concept is straightforward enough, but I’d add several clarifications to it. In order to make it work, we have to avoid motivated reasoning: seeking to confirm our pre-existing position when approaching inductive analysis. Thoughtful consideration also requires that participants in a policy discussion consider that others might have different values, priorities, and perspectives when analyzing decisions, and those differences might make agreement impossible. The differences might be irreconcilable, and that’s okay. Further, thoughtful consideration requires acknowledging uncertainty. In virtually every public policy debate, we are ultimately uncertain about outcomes. We can make logical guesses based on past experiences or research, but at the end of the day, we have to always be humble enough to acknowledge that we can be wrong. In other words, all parties involved have to accept that they don’t know everything.
“Good-faith, thoughtful consideration” surely sounds nice, but is it workable? Well, that’s where I actually have realistic hope. When discussing policies in person with people, I have almost universally found that they are willing to have these types of conversations.
Further, my definition of unity creates a system that everyone can buy into. It can confer legitimacy on outcomes as having come from a fundamentally fair and thoughtful process. When coupled with democratic decision-making structures, it ensures that an informed populace made a decision via an intuitively fair process.
This type of unity is less focused on outcomes and more focused on processes and approaches. It prioritizes dispositions. In other words, it’s a unity of goodwill. Goodwill towards opponents and goodwill towards the community at large. By aspiring to this type of unity, we may not create a perfect union, but we may create a more perfect one.
Vanderbilt University, Class of 2022
Majors: Economics and Political Science
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
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