Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The State of the Union

Once again it is time for that predictably ridiculous ritual, the State of the Union Speech. It is, of course, an actual speech, but in many ways it seems more like a pantomime, which is defined as "a dramatic entertainment, in which performers express meaning through gestures." How else should one describe this combination of artificial ceremonies intended to impress a certain monarchical dignity upon the occasion, combined with completely undignified interruptions for partisan applause and jumping up and down on cue to highlight tribal identities and loyalties? Yes, it is a speech full of words - typically too many words - but it is the official rituals of ersatz kingship and the partisan playacting that make the occasion what it is (or at least what it has become since it first became a TV spectacle half a century ago). For authentic political dignity in contrast, compare our State of the Union pantomime with the Ukrainian President's speech today to the European Parliament!

The President is, of course, commanded by the constitution to report to the Congress on the state of the union. He is not required to do so in person, let alone on TV. Who knows if next year a Speaker Kevin McCarthy (or a Speaker Donald Trump) may decide to ratchet up the Republican party's commitment to the erosion of civility and democratic norms even further and choose not to invite President Biden to come in person to deliver the speech. (After all, how does one profess the "Big Lie" about the 2020 election and then exercise "the distinct honor and high personal privilege" of introducing the President of the United States?) Such a further erosion of civility and democratic constitutional norms would be a tragedy, but in itself the absence of the State of the Union pantomime maybe not.

It was exactly two years ago that candidate Joe Biden reclaimed front-runner status (after having been written off by pundits and political ideologues). It was exactly two years ago that it suddenly became obvious that only Biden could create a coalition that could defeat Donald Trump.

Tonight's speech, for all its ridiculous staging, is an occasion for the President to try to recover some of that momentum and recreate a coalition that can again unite to defeat Trump and Trumpism. Tonight's speech is just a potential opportunity, however. For in today's world of polarized partisan media and diminished personal attention spans, neither the conventional State of the Union laundry list of policy proposals nor the accompanying partisan pantomime performance may produce much positive movement. It is, however, an opportunity to reclaim center stage with the right gestures and soundbites, celebrating what this Administration has accomplished that actually matters in most people's lives, while refocusing Americans' distracted attention by offering an attractive alternative to the dangerous appeal of Vladimir Putin and his American surrogates.

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