As many very smart people will undoubtedly tell you today, the State of the Union address doesn’t really matter much. Brendan Nyhan reminded us last year that the instant polling is worthless, that that President doesn’t actually often get an approval bounce, and that unlike a debate there’s no chance of an unscripted moment. John Sides reminded us that any policy or agenda effects from the speech are small at best. And Ezra Klein notes today that the one dimension on which the address may have a strong impact — laying out the President’s policy agenda — is basically a non-issue in an election year with a divided Congress. In short, there’s very little reason to believe that a single speech given by the President should draw even a fraction of the attention that the State of the Union address does; it’s the over-hyped political event of the year.
Let me tell you why the State of the Union address does matter.
It matters because of what it symbolizes. The State of the Union address is the only regular non-electoral event on the American political calendar that brings our democratic government together as a whole. In a system of separate institutions sharing power, in which the ambitions of men are pitted against each other in hopes of producing a common good, the SOTU reminds us that fundamentally we are not a nation of competing political parties, or of divergent ideologies, or of irreconcilable interests. At our core we are a unified republic, a collection of people who quite naturally disagree about policy but concur that the best way to resolve those disagreements is through a republican government elected by a democratic vote of the citizenry, under a constitutional system that balances the capacity of government with limits that protect the liberty of the people to seek their own happiness.
When the President slowly walks down the aisle, shaking hands with Representatives and Senators as the entire House chamber stands in applause, some people choose to cynically see it as a facade, a kabuki theater in which animosity is suppressed in service of outward appearances. I choose to see it differently; this is the power of the democratic system of government on full display. For it matters not why they are all clapping, only that they are, indeed, all clapping. The ties that bind us are not on display often in politics but, when they are, they time and again prove that our republic is not a government of men, but one of ideas and institutions and, most importantly, laws. They clap not only for the man who must shoulder the burdens of the nation in a lonely office down the street, but for the office itself, and for the powers we have chosen as a republic to place in it, long ago in the 18th century and still today.
This is, in part, why it shook so many people — both inside and outside of Congress — when Representative Wilson interrupted the presidential address to Congress in September 2009. The concern was not fundamentally about what was said or the effect it had on the delivery of a speech; it was over and done in mere seconds. The issue was that a very small hole, but a very real hole, had been punctured in the unity — and in the power of that unity — that the joint session presidential address symbolizes for our nation. The trivial interruption became acutely important because of what it symbolized, and because of the way it struck at the greater symbolism of the address itself. Anyone who says that Members are polite at the State of the Union because it is politically disadvantageous not to be are missing the point; while that’s probably true, it’s not the potential partisan reaction of the citizenry that inspires the civility. If those were the concerns, I think you would actually see more incivility, since someone would probably stand to profit; instead, the civility is inspired by the systemic concerns of a fragile republic, concerns that do not divide, but actually unite, virtually all citizens.
It matters because of the way it reflects our system of government. The other event that brings the entire government together as a whole is the quadrennial inauguration of the President, which inevitably becomes a celebration of the Presidency. Despite taking place at the Capitol, there’s no way around the fact that the modern inaugural suggests a presidency far out of line with the actual powers of the office under the Constitution. In some ways, it feels more like the coronation of a new king than the implementation of an election. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love inauguration; the pageantry and the symbolism of it are striking, beautiful, and full of many of the same republic-reinforcing features as the State of the Union address. It’s a wonderful event. But, to me, it’s like Christmas to the State of the Union’s Easter; more important in popular practice, but not nearly as important philosophically.
The State of the Union address, on the other hand, portrays a more basic and correct understanding of the foundations of our republic. The executive is invited to come to Congress by the leadership of the legislature, at a time satisfactory to them. If he accepts, he leaves his residence and comes to the institutional heart of the republic, the chamber of the House of Representatives. He then waits at the door of the chamber until he is introduced by the agents of the legislature, who then lead him down the aisle, where he is received by the elected Representatives of the people and the States. He passes by the Justices of the Court, members of his government, and finally he ascends onto the House dais, where he is again introduced and received by the legislature.
He then begins to talk. What he says may or may not matter, but the way in which he says it sure does. He does not tell the legislature what he is going to do in the following year, for there is very little he can do. He tells the legislature what he believes needs to be done, and then he asks the legislature to do it. In the endless string of presidential debates it can often feel like the President has the ability to wave his hand and enact a policy. But the State of the Union Address reminds everyone that the President of the United States can no more make a law than he can walk on water; never is it more evident how our system of government works. The President comes and visits the Representatives of the people, and he pleads with them to do what he thinks is right for the country.
It matters because of how it makes you feel. There are people out there who won’t watch the address tonight because of reasons like “it’s boring” or “I don’t follow politics.” This is totally reasonable on one level, but it also makes me sad, because none of things worth watching in the State of the Union address are related to contemporary partisan politics. And if you watch it for the right reasons, the non-partisan reasons, you should get chills up and down your spine if our republic is doing well in cultivating its democratic citizenry. Now, take this with a grain of salt; I’m a hopeless romantic sucker for political pageantry. But this isn’t the mundane cerebral pageantry of going to vote. This is the mighty chorus of a republic in action. Do not underestimate its ability to play with your heartstrings.
The State of the Union evokes many emotionally responses, which are as varied as the sensory stimuli that produce them. And it’s those sensations that stick with us. There’s the oozing of power that you can almost feel through your TV as the camera surveys the House chamber. There’s the massive flag hanging vertically behind the dais. There’s the absolutely thundering sound that mass applause makes in that room. There’s the visible security everywhere, and the often-repeated reminder that the a Cabinet official is not present, because someone must think about the unthinkable. There’s the packed feeling of the House chamber, which is obvious even when accounting for the fact that it looks much bigger on TV than it actually is in reality. There’s the inspiring visual of all the Representatives standing in applause at once. There’s the striking visual of half the Representatives doing so while the other half sit stony-faced. And then there’s the President, standing alone at the podium, fulfilling a Constitutional duty as old as the republic itself.
I’ve never been in the House chamber for a joint session presidential address. The closest I came was several years ago, when I had an office in the Capitol and could therefore gain access to the House wing after it was closed off to everyone but ticketholders and those with a local office (which today will occur at either 5:30pm or whenever the House recesses, whichever is later). My office was only about a 15 second walk from the House floor, and after milling around a bit in the hallway as Members and ticketholders came to the floor, we sat in the office and watched the address on TV. Most of the time, you couldn’t tell it was taking place just around the corner. But when the full force of chamber-wide applause was unleashed, it felt like a cannon exploding in the near-distance, powered by the all the energy of the republic. Over and over again. I don’t remember much from that speech, but I remember exactly what it felt like to listen to it.
It made me proud. And hopeful. And safe. But mostly it made me thankful. Because the thunderous and genuine applause of a semi-sovereign republican legislature is not a sound that many in human history have ever heard. Nor is it one that many humans are allowed to hear in the modern world. But to those who have heard it — in person or on TV — it is the most basic reminder that fortune has bestowed upon you a great gift, in the form of a government worthy of genuine celebration.
It doesn’t matter what Obama says tonight. You don’t even have to listen.
But watch the State of the Union address. It’s important.