Today, unity is an elusive concept, it would seem. Politically, racially, nationally, the trend of the moment is to define ourselves in narrower and narrower bands. And there’s a logic to that. Cable television figured this out decades ago. Two hundred channels give far more scope for personal taste and expression than five. The narrower we define ourselves, the more in common we have with those around us. There’s genuine power in that.
But this week’s cover story is a bit of a throwback. It is, in a fundamental way, about the power of unity. Armenia was named The Economist magazine’s “country of the year” in 2018 because it overthrew an authoritarian leader with virtually no violence. Our cover story looks at the man who led that revolution, Nikol Pashinyan, who is now the prime minister.
Mr. Pashinyan is a man of boundless charisma and a savvy former journalist. But what he accomplished, he accomplished because he was able to build unity. Put simply, he was able to rally a critical mass of citizens around the call to urgently defend the country from becoming a one-party state. Nearly a year after the protests, the sense of unity endures. In December elections, Pashinyan’s party won 70 percent of the vote.
This, it is safe to say, is not the political story across much of the rest of the world right now. Why?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is that it is human nature to come together in times of crisis. Armenian democracy faced an existential threat; that helped people put aside smaller concerns to focus on a huge one. Even in places dealing with political polarization, we see the same behavior after terrorist attacks or natural disasters. In some ways, the Soviet threat did the same thing.
But progress would demand we find some path to unity beyond fear or sorrow. And from one perspective, you could say that is exactly the problem the world is struggling to work through right now.
Think about the 1960s in America. The country was rent by racism, sexism, and a toxic anger at members of the military. Unity seemed in short supply. But what came from that tension and upheaval? Tremendous gains in civil rights, women’s rights, and a radical shift in how citizens see those who serve in the military. Is that unity? Maybe not in an absolute sense, but it was a significant step toward it. Unity is impossible without justice and respect for all – including minorities, women, and service members.
To be sure, those problems weren’t solved. They are coming up again now in new forms. But few would exchange 1968 for today. And that speaks to a different kind of revolution – the cyclical upheaval by which free societies improve themselves. Change is essential to progress, but it brings disruption. The core function of democracies is to prevent that perpetual, renewing disruption from spiraling into disorder or dictatorship.
Unity is a work in progress, and the picture from Armenia might be different, but it is by no means the only beacon of hope.