Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Different Kind of State of the Union?

The problem of modern American politics starts from the fact our elected politicians talk too much past each other, but not to each other. Politician A says on one television network, “The American People want this  …” On another network, Politician B says “My constituents tell me that instead.” The “American People” are invoked in vain, to corroborate every and any politician’s preferred (partisan) truth. This is the unsung consequence of our age of perpetual speechifying, where words are thrown out not to bring us together, but to build stronger and more insular echo chambers where the stylized language of each political party generates applause from like-minded partisans, outrage from the other side. Political rhetoric in this country is rarely used to unite, to deliberate, or to govern. Instead, it is deployed to divide, to seduce, or to campaign.

But in a world in which spin begets more spin, nothing is really being said anymore, and as a result, nothing ever gets done. My hope is that the State of the Union address this year, and every year henceforth, can do something to reverse this pattern. At least once a year, the rhetoric of the president of the United States ought to be substantive and deliberative, and it ought to be directed at the very – indeed the only – people in the nation who can make his or her vision into legislative reality. Just once, maybe presidents can speak not to lobbyists, partisan followers, or television audiences; but have a heart-to-heart talk as the chief spokesperson of one branch of government to the next.

The State of the Union address is, after all, the only genre of presidential speech that is actually sanctioned and called for by the Constitution. Unlike standard variety “rose garden” speeches, this speech is actually a duty prescribed in Article 2, Section III of the Constitution, that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” This means that this speech above all others cannot and should not be judged by the criteria of modern mass communication. By this I mean at least two things. First, whether or not the speech is lyrical, quotable, memorable, and so forth is, or at least should be, besides the point. The Constitution asks that presidents offer, first and foremost, “information.” Not soundbites or applause lines, or strategically seated, camera-ready guests at the gallery of the House of Representatives. Second, this information is to be addressed “to Congress,” and not, as is typically the case, over the heads of members of Congress to the American people. The speech should be deliberative, not populist. Indeed, for most of its history, what was called the “Annual Message” was a written statement to Congress, a recognition that serious, deliberative inter-branch communication was crucial for the healthy functioning of a system of separate branches sharing power.

Consider, then, the first Annual Message delivered by George Washington. Washington was at pains to present his recommendations in a manner consistent with the equality of branches. “I can not forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad,” Washington told his interlocutors. Washington understood that he was no one-man show; the president needs Congress, and Congress needs the president. Applause from outside the walls of Congress meant and translated to next to nothing. His was an example of deliberative speech; a recognition that thoughtful and civil inter-branch discourse was key to the healthy functioning of the republic.

Appreciating that presidential rhetoric ought, at least sometimes, to be filled with information, and actually and genuinely directed at Congress and not at television audiences means that the content of such rhetoric must be radically different from almost every other presidential speech. It means that in a speech like the State of the Union, the president should not stake a grand vision so out-of-reach as to demarcate a bargaining signpost so that when he invariably moves it closer to the median congressional position, he would have achieved what he really set out to do anyway. It means setting out in a good-faith manner to reach consensus with the First Branch. It means respecting the constitutional fact that every elected official has a different constituency and different electoral pressures; and that is why reasonable people can and often will reasonably disagree. It means that partisan punch-lines do nothing to engender trust or consensus; rather, they purchase public prestige at the cost of collegiality. And it probably even means that if the speech is boring, so be it.

Perhaps democracy requires lyricism; and surely a democratic people need and should be rhetorically engaged. Ronald Reagan soared with lyricism, and nobody denies that Obama captivates his audiences. We have tried modern-style oratory; but it hasn’t exactly been the silver bullet to our republican woes. (Might it actually be part of the cause?) Even the Great Communicators have failed to take us from the dysfunction that is Washington, DC. So why not try something other than, well, mere rhetoric? At least once a year, it should not be too much to ask that presidents, the major spokespersons of our constitutional republic, should be called upon to “give to Congress information of the State of the Union,” no more or less. If presidents talked to, not at Congress, there may be hope yet out of this age of gridlock.

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