In his inaugural address to the nation, US President Joe Biden made a call for unity. Such connection, despite and between differences, which the newly elected president mentioned nine times, was presented as Americans’ best hope at a time of division and pandemic. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” Biden said, “and unity is the path forward.”
Some Republicans seized on these comments, holding them up to suggest that if Biden did not secure bipartisan compromise between elected representatives from both parties serving in government, he would have failed at achieving unity.
Back in March, I argued that bipartisanship is actually only one very limited understanding of unity. Biden’s stimulus package, for example, had broad national support: 59 per cent of Republicans said they approved of at least part of it, even if no Republican senator gave it their vote. One could look at the policy, therefore, and say that Biden’s project was not unified. Alternatively, one could say that providing something that the majority of the country supports, and that perhaps begins to repair the social contract in the process, is upholding the ideal of unity, regardless of whether or not 50 elected Republicans decide it is in their own political interest to go along.
Now, a few months later, we have another example of these two conflicting visions of unity: Biden’s vaccination mandates.
Last week, Biden announced that he would order mandatory vaccine rules for large companies. To those still unvaccinated, he said, “We have been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”
Predictably, this was met with outrage from Republicans. Republican governors, including Brian Kemp of Georgia, threatened to go to court to block the new requirement. Ron DeSantis of Florida said he opposed all kinds of mandates. On Tuesday, Arizona sued the Biden administration over the mandate. Some in the press have played along, framing the mandate as an act of division, even likening it to “war” against the unvaccinated.
The truth, though, is that the country is not equally split on vaccines. Just 37 per cent of Americans remain unvaccinated. That means that 63 per cent of the country is vaccinated (as of 16 September), including, according to a NBC News poll from late last month, 55 per cent of Republicans. (That same poll said 50 per cent of those who voted for Donald Trump for president also claimed to have been vaccinated.) Furthermore, 60 per cent of Americans support vaccine mandates, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll released Thursday.
But popularity should not be the only component in evaluating whether something is in the interest of unity. Although the country should not turn itself over to a tyranny of the minority in the interest of bipartisanship, neither should it ignore the real risk posed by a tyranny of the majority. Instead, restoring confidence is also key. We should be asking whether a policy can help bring the country – the government and the various people in it – back together (or, to put it more plainly, unify them).
The vaccine mandate passes this test too. It serves to remind people that the government is here to keep individuals safe and to bring them back together (by making it safer for people to be near each other in the face of a potentially life-threatening virus). The mandate both listens to the majority of the US public and helps to put us in a position where we, government and public alike, can begin to stitch our country back together.
Vaccination mandates have helped boost the vaccination rates in countries like France and Italy. This is a good thing because, though getting vaccinated does not eliminate the chances of getting Covid, vaccinations do help lower the number of infections, the number of serious Covid cases, and the opportunity for the virus to mutate. The US, in adopting similar measures, could help raise its own vaccination rate, which is currently the lowest among the G7.
A richer, fuller understanding of unity is therefore necessary in the face of Republican attacks on the vaccine mandate.
On 10 September, Biden, in response to Republican gubernatorial threats to sue, said, “I am so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities.” He added, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
He’s right: it doesn’t. Republican governors or conservative talking heads may call the vaccine mandate divisive. But another interpretation is that, with the vaccine mandate, Biden is imagining the possibility of transcending partisan politics in order to accomplish a widely supported goal. That’s not a partisan war. That’s an attempt to fulfil the promise he made on the very first day of his presidency: that he would inch Americans closer to becoming a united United States.
[See also: The race to beat Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy]