If headlines about the Democratic convention (shown below) are any indication, the main purpose of the event is “party unity.” Calls to “Unite Blue” have been intensifying as the Democratic primary process has inched towards a close and represent a pitch for Bernie Sanders supporters to rally around Hillary Clinton, helping her to emerge victorious in November’s general election matchup with Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein.
The brand of “unity” being pushed, however, is a corruption of the word. It zeroes in on a narrow set of attitudes and behaviors – those towards Clinton and other Democratic party leaders – and makes a binary categorization: people who praise Clinton and other Democrats while pledging to vote for them in the fall are good, while those who protest Democratic party leaders at the convention and/or refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton are at best “ridiculous” (Sarah Silverman), “crazy” (Jonathan Chait), “pathetic” (Jon Favreau) “babies” (Amanda Marcotte) and at worst “whiny diaper babies” (Bob Cesca), “dickheads” (Imani Gandy), “garbage people” (Ian Millhiser), “shitheads” (Joan Walsh), or my personal favorite, from a Daily Kos blogger going by the name of LiberalCanuck, “Regressives [who] are commonly found in terrorist and quasi-terrorist circles [and] want misery [and] suffering [so a] revolution can occur.”
This brand of unity is so blinding that those espousing it often pile on and attack individuals who turn out to be with them on the very issue they deem most important (making sure Hillary Clinton wins in the fall). It risks alienating Sanders supporters – who are more likely than any other candidates’ supporters to hold anti-racist views and support social justice policies – and undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to lean Democratic, thus sowing the very division to which those pushing party unity are ostensibly opposed.
There is a better kind of unity, one that actually brings people together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world. It is based on a shared passion for helping those in need, an openness to intellectually honest disagreement, and a commitment to respect and accountability. This brand of unity has three major components:
1) Sticking to intellectually honest arguments: During the primary, pro-Clinton partisans propagated illiberal, misleading, and/or false claims about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Now, despite what the New York Times (hardly a Sanders-sympathetic media outlet) has called “undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” many pundits have responded, not by apologizing for mocking Sanders supporters’ suspicions, but by downplaying and diverting attention away from the evidence confirming that the primary was unfair and undemocratic. It’s hard to develop a successful coalition when some members of that coalition can’t trust that others are engaging in good faith, and prominent Clinton supporters have a lot of work to do to show that they are.
To be clear, the behavior of these prominent individuals is not representative; most Clinton supporters already engage in good faith most of the time, and there are also Sanders supporters out there who distorted facts during the primary. It is incumbent upon everyone who truly supports power-balancing policy to make sure we’re adhering to the truth.
2) Respecting intellectually honest disagreement about the strategy most likely to achieve a common goal: Third-party voting, for example, comes with pros and cons for those who believe in social justice policy. The main con, as its detractors are quick to point out, is that it increases the chances that the worse of two major-party candidates will win an election (though it is not the same mathematically as a vote for the worse major-party candidate and, contrary to popular belief, is not the predominant reason George W. Bush became president in 2001). The main pro of third-party voting, on the other hand – one its detractors rarely if ever acknowledge – is that it increases voters’ leverage over the Democratic party and the likelihood of a meaningful challenge to America’s two-party system in the long run, a system millions of people continue to suffer under.
Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors, including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton. Reasonable people with very similar policy goals and visions for the world are going to disagree about whether third-party voting is worth it – some have even suggested alternative voting options – and rather than excoriating each other, we should have a robust and respectful debate.
3) Addressing legitimate concerns from coalition members and working together on areas of agreement: Third-party voting holds appeal because of the Democratic party’s very real failings, and those who wish to sway third-party voters should make their case not by belittling those voters’ concerns, but by working to make the Democratic party better. If Clinton gets elected and actively pursues the policies she borrowed from Sanders on the campaign trail, we will consider voting for her in 2020. In the meantime, those voting for third-party candidates in the general election this year must both help push those policies through social movements and make sure to be actively involved in electoral processes at the city, state, and congressional levels.
In short, there’s no reason unity has to be so divisive.