Last week, in a CBS News interview, President Barack Obama stated that the mistake of his first term was to focus on policy while forgetting that the president's job is also to "tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism."
This brings to mind George W. Bush's famous statement that he was "a uniter, not a divider." Like Bush, Obama has been ridiculed by opponents as a hypocrite who claims to want unity while waging a nasty, divisive campaign.
But the problem goes deeper. In a free and diverse society, "unity" is a fantasy except in extreme and dire circumstances. We would be far better off with more realistic goals, such as compromise and a more civil variety of disagreement.
A sense of national unity and purpose is most likely in the face of an external threat. September 11 brought Americans together -- but not for long. Obama may not be the greatest communicator, but even with brilliant rhetorical skills, it is doubtful that he could have unified a nation in which 47 percent of the popular vote went against him. In retrospect, many think of Ronald Reagan as a leader who inspired unity and purpose; but even this perception is partly nostalgic. Reagan's approval ratings while in office averaged 53 percent.
The genius of our political system is that it does not require unity to function. At the time of America's founding, it was commonly believed that a republic could be governed only through shared commitment to the common good, and "factions" representing selfish interests should be restrained. The founders saw the dangers of excessive factionalism, but also believed that factions could be harnessed for the common good by a system that balanced diverse interests.
Today, divisions are strong on many fundamental questions. On abortion and same-sex marriage, it's virtually a 50-50 split. On the health care reform law, some polls show an even split as well; others find about half favoring repeal, and just over 40 percent opposing it. On government, half say it should do more to solve problems, while slightly fewer say it is already doing too much that should be left to businesses and individuals.
There is an alarming tendency today to see the other half as evil or delusional. Liberals assail the rich and dismiss non-wealthy conservative voters as either dupes or bigots. Conservatives decry liberal "class warfare" but then warn of a coming war between "the makers" and "the takers"; the latter, according to one overheated article on FoxNews.com, comprise 48 percent of Americans and include anyone receiving any government benefits as well as public employees-- presumably police officers and firefighters among them.
It's hard to say whether polarization is worse today than ever -- or just seems that way because the Internet has given people unprecedented opportunities to express their views and confirm their biases. Either way, unity and common purpose are a long way off. The best we can strive for is less vitriol and more willingness to at least try to listen to the other side. In his recent book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a fascinating look at the moral foundations of conservative, liberal, and libertarian political viewpoints and the strengths and weaknesses of all three, urging Americans to understand each other better and recognize that good people are indeed found in each camp. That would be the most unifying message a politician could offer. We may never find a common purpose, but we could find better ways to accommodate our different purposes.