A few months ago, I was speaking with a friend of mine from England. She wanted to eventually come here to the United States to live and work. When I asked her why that was, she replied, “British politics are so messed up.” Both of us being Jewish, I can imagine that her antipathy toward Britain’s politics had as much to do with the fierce debates over Brexit as it did Jeremy Corbyn’s ominous rise. But still, I was surprised; “Politics back home are a mess, so you want to come here?” I asked incredulously. “Have you read the news lately?”
This sparked a conversation about the United States and its unique position at this moment in history. Though the entirety of the Western world is riven by political disputes, we agreed, the United States contains within itself a diversity of peoples, histories and ways of life. The country was founded largely on the principle of religious liberty, the underlying belief being a society did not even have to agree on the most fundamental questions of existence to function as a stable and, perhaps, exceptional polity. Indeed, such a country could even be made stronger by its intellectual and theological diversity. Such diversity breeds tension — it is inherent in the concept. But in the tension, in the fight and argumentation between rival ideas, is contained the tool by which the United States continually renews itself.
Though many Americans are nominally committed to diversity of all kinds, we, like most human beings, desire some kind of unity, whether that unity is national, cultural or ethnic. This tension between the competing desires for unity and diversity is present in all aspects of human life — our choice to conform to our communities, or be “true to ourselves”; in our desire to conserve our religious and ethnic bonds; and our concurrent need to be accepted by larger society. This tension is real — too much unity, and you have conformity, blandness and, in the worst cases, totalitarianism and ideologically driven repression. Too much division and you get conflict, deadlock and, in severe cases, violence and war.
This tension underlies our fiercest debates. And these fierce debates themselves are indicative of a divided culture and political life. We need unity in our national life to deal with problems, compromise on issues and move the country forward. But too much unity and conformity makes us blind to alternatives and suspicious of new — and better — ideas. More and more, I’ve come to believe that the United States is exceptional for its embracing — not its forgetting — of the tension between unity and diversity.
It is America’s pluralism that gives us the forward momentum we need to continually reinvent ourselves. At the same time, that pluralism is productive insofar as it supports our essential, unifying principles. Think of our unity as a foundation that our diversity and pluralism continually renews, repairs and refreshes. The United States of America is not the only country in the world with political strife, but it is the only country with an institutionalized structure of diversity and pluralism. In this way, our diversity is managed by a commitment to unity and stability — thus we avoid the blandness and danger of conformity while containing the most visceral and violent consequences of diversity and division.
Sometimes it takes looking at our country from the outside in to appreciate its flaws and idiosyncrasies. I’ve come to appreciate our country for what it is — a loud, boisterous, noisy, colorful democracy, its divisions a feature of our system, not a bug.
Aaron Bondar is a senior double-majoring in political science and economics.