The State of the Union is a time-honored tradition where Americans of all stripes can stop our squabbling and unite to declare what is truly imp…
Sorry, I can’t keep up the shtick anymore. State of the Unions are bad, folks. All of them. It’s an atavistic piece of self-flagellating propaganda taken seriously only by our permanent ruling class. The State of the Union had a role back when it took six hours to reach your neighbor’s house via horse and buggy, but in our omnipresent media environment, there is no need for the president to “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.” They do that all the time anyway.
The State of the Union used to be a letter the president sent to Congress, but Woodrow Wilson decided to bring it to the actual chamber to more fervently whip up support for his agenda. Every president since, save for Herbert Hoover, has delivered at least one State of the Union in Congress. With the advent of television, it became an even more extreme version of agitprop, as it provided the president with an opportunity to present a highly manicured version of themselves. Donald Trump is getting good marks for his speech because that’s how low the bar is for all presidents, not just our toddler-in-chief. Appease your base, spout general platitudes about the greatness of America, make unserious calls for bipartisanship, exploit a special guest’s tragedy for an applause line—rinse, repeat.
There is no good version of the State of the Union because there is no honest version of the State of the Union. Sure, it’s a moment for the president to lay out their agenda, but know what else is? Every other waking moment of the president’s life. They’re the freaking president. Whatever they say is news that instantly gets disseminated out to the public. They don’t need an annual tradition to lay out their agenda, they just need to call in to Fox & Friends or Rachel Maddow and it will accomplish the exact same task.
The State of the Union prioritizes style over substance, and the little substance in these speeches is often misleading (at best). We exploit “everyday Americans” by bringing them in as guests and turning them into symbols of our broader American tragedies—patting ourselves on the back for our kindness, while rarely doing anything to fix the underlying problems that led to these catastrophes in the first place. The State of the Union combines the vacuousness of Hollywood award shows with the seediness of D.C. to create the ultimate turducken of meaningless word barf.
Ban the State of the Union. It exists solely for our punditry to clap like trained circus seals for our ruling class over a list of priorities that will almost surely not pass as the version presented to the American people. It’s political theater at its absolute worst, and it is the direct line that we can draw to the vapid punditry of people like Chris Cillizza or Mark Halperin—where reality does not even register, and style is all that matters. This country cares far more about optics (see: Kaepernick, Colin and troops, respecting) than substance (see: 40,000, homeless veterans). America is crumbling before our very eyes, and if we are to ever shift on to a more sustainable course, we should begin by axing an outdated tradition which has come to embody everything that is wrong with our fundamentally broken politics.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.