Commentary

National Unity Is Highly Overrated by Ambitious Politicos

Barely a day after we heard the happy news that Osama bin Laden took an American bullet to the head, President Obama hosted both parties’ leadership at an event called “Together As An American Family: A Bipartisan Congressional Dinner at the White House.”

“Last night,” the president proclaimed, “we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. … Tonight it is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges we still face.”

Call me a cynic (I won’t complain), but I found myself mentally translating Obama’s remarks: “and so, let’s approach our upcoming budget battles in the spirit that prevailed during those five minutes when everyone thought I was an awesome, supercompetent president.” Rare indeed is the call for “national unity” that doesn’t reduce to “Let’s all come together — on my terms.”

Rare indeed is the call for “national unity” that doesn’t reduce to “Let’s all come together — on my terms.””

For going on a decade now, politicians have called upon Americans to recapture our post-Sept. 11 “sense of unity.” But that period of harmony-under-pressure also came with unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled costly foreign adventurism abroad and a radical expansion of federal power at home. Maybe national unity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Right from the start, there was something perverse in how pundits and pols right and left saw a bright side to Sept. 11, seizing on it as one of those good crises you shouldn’t let go to waste.

Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, “National Greatness Conservative” David Brooks wrote, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?”

Among the post-Sept. 11 trends that put a spring in Brooks’ step was the “stunning jump in the percentage of people who say they trust government to solve problems.”

That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote, “What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.”

He quoted William James’ Moral Equivalent of War on the need “to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” “I’ve lived through this state,” Packer wrote, “and I like it.”

I can’t say I’m as fond of it as Packer was. That “inflamed civic temper” helped enable a costly, unnecessary war, the creation of a new Cabinet department devoted to groping travelers, the expansion of our bloated entitlement state, and a decade of unrestrained spending.

With all due respect to the White House and Sister Sledge, we aren’t family. Our Constitution was designed to keep government in its place, so that the “little platoons” of American life — families, churches, communities — would have space to flourish.

That private space is threatened as never before, thanks in large part to the choices made and avoided during the free-spending post-Sept. 11 era.

Obama is right that Red Team/Blue Team politicking shouldn’t govern our response to our looming fiscal catastrophe. But it’s a little rich to hear that from a guy who just got done denouncing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to control Medicaid costs as an un-American scheme to put seniors on Alpo rations.

Whether or not “politics stops at the water’s edge,” when a politician suggests it should stop within our borders, put a hand over your wallet. Americans at their best are argumentative, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and relentlessly skeptical of their grand plans. That, not “national unity,” is the spirit we’ll need in the years to come.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.