Against the State of the Union

A brief polemic against the most monarchical, overblown, tedious piece of political entertainment in the American system.

Tonight is President Biden’s second State of the Union address (his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2021 was technically not a SotU because he had just been inaugurated). Most likely it will be far too long, constantly interrupted by Stalin-esque continued applause, and full of total nonsense. Biden will call out people in the audience that are brought in specifically for the purpose of being used as political pawns, he will make promises that everyone will forget about 5 minutes later, and he will occasionally go off-script to make him feel down-to-earth. The speech will be phony, the reception will be obsequious, and the TV coverage will be wall-to-wall.

How do I know this? Because every State of the Union address is exactly the same song-and-dance. Can you tell that I don’t like this “tradition”?

Why do we even have a tradition of these addresses in the first place? This answer is an easy one: it is required by the Constitution. In Section III of Article II, we see the genesis of the idea:

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…

As you can see, nothing here details the specific form of the State of the Union, only that it should be given to Congress by the Executive “from time to time”. Our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, chose to give the mostly perfunctory address in-person, but their successor Thomas Jefferson ended this approach and opted for a written message instead. Jefferson rightly saw the in-person address to a joint session of Congress as smacking of monarchy and all-too-European for his democratic tastes. For the next century, the written report was the form this annual message took. Until, that is, Woodrow Wilson came in and ruined everything (as usual).

Wilson returned to giving the address in person in 1913, using it to promote the office of the President over the Congress, present himself as a centralizing leader, and push his favored radical policies. Like so many of his other ideas, Wilson’s revival of the monarchical verbal form was an exercise in self-aggrandizement from a man who thought he was God’s gift to America. Unfortunately – again, like so many of his other ideas – this one stuck.

Later leaders brought the address to the radio, television, and internet, further expanding its reach and emphasizing its importance. A tradition of opposition rebuttals to the speech evolved over time, and now there are several post-SotU speeches by opposition figures, members of the President’s own party, and random non-politicians.

Another malign development in the entertainment aspect of the annual address came under Ronald Reagan, who was the first to bring specially-selected guests to the show and reference them directly in his speech. This began in 1986 with four special guests and has exploded to the point where it feels like an episode of Hollywood Squares. Seemingly every single policy idea has to be accompanied by a human avatar in the Congressional gallery. This use of people as political pawns is quite grotesque, especially as the practice has evolved.

The whole spectacle is overwrought, canned, and incredibly boring to watch. Nothing of interest happens, most policy prescriptions declared from on high by the President never come to pass, and the whole evening is elongated interminably by the constant forced applause. The State of the Union was never intended to be a monarchical gala, but a rote and unspectacular recitation of the actual issues facing the nation. The evolution of this business-like requirement into a televised event has been bad for the country; it has coincided with the rampant growth of the federal government, the creation of the ‘imperial presidency’, and the rise of politics as entertainment.

The next President should return to the small-d democratic tradition of the 19th century and eschew an in-person State of the Union, choosing a written message in its place. End this monarchical scourge on our body politic, and you’ve got my vote.

One thought on “Against the State of the Union

Leave a Reply