President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address after he was sworn-in as the 46th President of the United States on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Erin Schaff / The New York Times via AP

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Greg Krohn of Ellsworth is professor emeritus of economics at Bucknell University.

In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden stated that “my whole soul is in this… uniting our nation.” Some Republicans argue that greater unity would be seriously undermined if Biden supports reprisals against former President Donald Trump after the attack on the Capitol Jan. 6 by Trump’s supporters. This focus on unity by national political leaders raises the question: What is unity?

Unity is not uniformity. People do not have the same likes and dislikes regarding types of food, friends, fashion, automobiles, humor, art and architecture, books, television shows, music, or sports. Citizens of the United States of America do not all hold the same ultimate concerns (religious beliefs), and the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits the establishment of a national religion. Uniformity of personal likes, dislikes, and religious beliefs is impossible.

Nor is unity agreement on public policy issues. How much should the government spend on national defense, health care, retirement programs, education, and low-income assistance? What taxes should be levied to fund government spending: income, sales, property, gasoline, or other taxes? How progressive should the income tax be? What government regulations should be imposed, and why? What government functions should be the responsibility of the federal government? State and local governments? There will always be disagreements on the answers to these and other important policy questions. National unity cannot require agreement on public policy issues.

What then unites the nation? In the reality-based movie, “Bridge of Spies,” Tom Hanks plays the role of the attorney, James Donovan, who represented the Soviet spy eventually exchanged for the American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. In a memorable scene, an agent of the CIA appeals to Donovan to share information obtained from his client with the government. In resisting the agent’s request, Donovan notes that he is Irish and the agent is German. Donovan then asks and answers a rhetorical question: “What makes us both Americans? Just one thing… the rule book. We call it the Constitution. And we agree to the rules and that’s what makes us Americans.”

Agreeing to the same rule book — the Constitution of the United States of America — is what unites the nation. The stated aims of the Constitution include liberty, justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, and the general welfare. Disputes are resolved in courts of law, laws are written by legislators and elections run by the states determine who are the legislators, the president, and the vice president. Citizens enjoy the rights of equal protection under the law, free speech, peaceful assembly and other specified rights. There is a process for making amendments.

We will continue to disagree about actions taken, and actions that should be taken, by legislators, the president, and the courts, but we can agree to the system of government prescribed in the Constitution. This is what is needed, and may be all that is possible, for national unity.