Andrew Sullivan’s assessment of the Biden administration is troubling. Rather than seeking the unity he promised, Sullivan suggests that Biden is pursuing policies favorable to the left which will alienate conservatives. A certain percentage of conservatives supported Trump merely because they worried about an aggressively liberal Biden administration. I had many conversations with such conservatives in which I suggested that their fears were overwrought and Biden would pursue consistently moderate policies. He is and always has been a moderate. Why would he become anything else as President? And yet, why do his first acts as President seem so immoderate? Why does he seem beholden to the liberal forces in the Democratic party that he defeated in the primaries?
For instance, one of the real worries for religious conservatives, embodied by the recent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case, has been the protection of individual religious conscience over and against state attack in the name of LGBTQ+ equality. A significant number of religious conservatives abandoned their scruples about Trump because of their fear of secular attacks on their religion. Seemingly, it would have lowered the temperature a great deal to quiet conservative fears by staying away from these issues. But as Sullivan reports: “Biden also pledges to remove any protection for orthodox religious freedom and individual conscience in “LGBTQ+” areas in his proposed Equality Act, which repeals the relevant sections of Biden’s own Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and also makes sex indistinguishable from gender.” Two different notions of unity underlie the difficulty here. Religious conservatives might be convinced to seek unity and abandon Trump’s fiery divisiveness if they knew that their concerns would be respected. If their concerns aren’t going to be respected, why not continue the fight? I suspect secular liberals do sincerely want unity but they want that unity on the basis of terms that they think the only conceivably just terms. Liberals ask: why should religious people have the sorts of exemptions promised by the RFRA if those exemptions result in unjust treatment? Both sides are seeing past each other. Religious conservatives think their survival depends on decisively “defeating” their adversary, removing the danger by taking them off the field. Secular liberals think that they can and should convince religious conservatives of what they think is the obvious injustice of their opinions. If religious conservatives can’t be convinced of the injustice of their opinions, then secular liberals think they should be removed from the field.
By contrast, constitutionalism depends on seeing politics not as two adversaries lined up in the field against one another ready to go to war. Instead, it depends on seeing why the other side might hold its opinions and not assuming the worst of them. Although it’s not necessary to agree with the other side, it is necessary to accept that they are legitimate partners in the business of governing and seeking the common good. People engaged in a war don’t respect constitutional processes. To respect constitutional processes, we need to learn again how to respect the other side. Ultimately, constitutionalism, which is in such peril right now, depends on both sides lowering the temperature.