Against National Unity

Americans are divided not because politicians failed to pronounce the correct phrases, but because we genuinely disagree on questions of public policy, justice, and identity.


The traditional motto of the United States is e pluribus unum—from many, one. Suggested by the French designer Pierre Eugène du Simitière, the phrase is apparently derived from the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero. In De Officiis, his treatise on ethics, Cicero proposes that "when men have similar pursuits and inclinations, it comes about that each one is as much delighted with the other as he is with himself: the result is what Pythagoras wanted in friendship, that several be united into one."

Americans frequently recur to the ideal of unity on ceremonial occasions. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden used the word eight times. "With unity," he promised, "we can do great things." Biden acknowledged the legal disputes and violent interference that preceded his inauguration. But he affirmed that "we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries."

Ironically, Biden's rhetoric of unity echoed the words of his predecessor on the same occasion. In 2017, newly elected President Donald Trump insisted that "We are one nation….We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny." In his address, Biden claimed "History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity." Trump emphasized religious motives, noting that the Bible attests "How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity."

Trump did not deliver on that biblical promise. Elected with just 46 percent of the popular vote, he became unique among modern presidents in failing to sustain an average approval rating greater than 50 percent at any time in his presidency.

Although Biden cultivates an avuncular persona, won a majority of the popular vote, and is just a few months into his term, it's unlikely he will do much better. Already, familiar tensions have reemerged. Indeed, Biden seems to face the same inverse reaction to some of his efforts as Trump did.

Pundits tend to blame mistakes of rhetoric or legislative strategy for politicians' failure to achieve e pluribus unum. The truth is, neither cause is primarily to blame. Americans are not divided because politicians failed to pronounce the correct phrases or promoted one bill rather than another. We are divided because we genuinely disagree—not only on matters of public policy but also on basic questions of justice and identity.

At a glance, this should not be very surprising. This is an enormous country that contains a vast number of people with quite various backgrounds. Disappointed Americans sometimes wonder why the United States does not enjoy the levels of consensus or solidarity that seem possible in, say, Denmark. Part of the answer is that the population of Denmark is comparable to that of metropolitan Phoenix.

Some very large states pursue a higher degree of political and moral consensus than we seem to manage. The difficulty is that the means they employ are not very appealing. There are just six other countries with populations greater than 200 million: Brazil, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Nigeria. Most employ policies of coercion and discrimination against religious, ethnic, or cultural minorities that shock American sensibilities.

The connection between Americans' relative freedom and our unruly diversity is not accidental. "Liberty," wrote James Madison in a famous passage of Federalist No. 10, "is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires." We might avoid the challenges of plurality by limiting freedoms to think, publish, worship, move, buy, and sell. The ultimate price, though, would be suffocation.

The original meaning of e pluribus unum, then, could not be that all or even most Americans should share pursuits or inclinations in the manner of friends—even in a federation of just 13 states and about 3 million inhabitants, only a small fraction of whom were qualified by sex, race, and property to vote. It was that a large population distributed among semi-independent mini-polities could govern themselves in many respects, while acting in concert on matters of truly common concern.

This enterprise helps explain an important ambiguity in the Constitution. The preamble famously appeals to "we, the people of the United States of America" as the ultimate source of authority. But it says remarkably little about the characteristics of those people and divides power among different institutions and levels of government. The unity of the people consists in their loyalty to the Constitution itself—the centerpiece of oaths sworn by our civil and military officers.

Although it increased the power of the national government over the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution differed from more centralized and holistic approaches of politics developing around the same time. In 1789, the year after the Constitution was ratified, the French National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Unlike our Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man posits that nations exist independently of laws and political institutions and that they exercise sovereignty over individual citizens. Notably, neither word appears in the U.S. Constitution.

European-style nationalism is not the only possible meaning of unity. Since the early days of the republic, many Americans have argued that our unavoidable political disagreements must be domesticated by shared culture. In addition to a common language, they argued, we need a consensual understanding of the past. The common schools movement of the 19th century was one effort to use formal education to constitute a unified American people. More recently, an op-ed by six former secretaries of education argued that, "To turn pluribus into unum, we need curriculums that achieve a more plural and complete story of U.S. history, while also forging a common story, the shared inheritance of all Americans."

At a sufficient level of abstraction, it is difficult to oppose this plea. In education policy as in our political rhetoric, we all claim to stand on common ground. The challenge lies in the details, though. Nineteenth-century reformers such as Horace Mann sincerely believed the methods and institutions they favored would be appealing to Americans of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in all parts of the country. As it turned out, many of their fellow citizens disagreed. What looked to the reformers like a flexible shared culture seemed to many other Americans more like the imposition of a New England–centric, Anglo-Protestant culture that they neither recognized nor endorsed. The resulting battles over public vs. private schools, religious vs. secular curriculums, and academic vs. vocational preparation have never been fully resolved.

Today's enthusiasts for unity through education are more sensitive to such tensions than their predecessors. That very sensitivity, though, tends to make their proposals inadequate to their goals. It's not that there's something inherently wrong with familiar measures like emphasizing civic instruction. Such measures are simply too weak to unite several hundred million persons into a single cohesive community.

Conservatives have particular reasons to be skeptical of a more standardized and nationalized curriculum. In practice, even the best-intentioned efforts will empower the progressive left, which dominates national teachers unions, schools of education, and other institutions with a large role in implementing policy. Paradoxically, the best prospects for patriotic teaching lie in local control and opportunities for home and religious schooling.

In education as well as politics, then, unity proves elusive. That is not because we haven't hit on the right methods for achieving it. It is because a vision of unity borrowed from the Greco-Roman city-state, the biblical people of Israel, or the European idea of nationhood is unsuited to a vastly extended modern republic.

The question we face is not how to achieve an impossible level of consensus. It is how we can live together peacefully while maintaining the principles of personal freedom and legal equality that make America great.