The Ritual State of the Union

The Ritual State of the Union

To say that the annual State of the Union address is a theatrical event is to state the obvious. From the formal protocols and gestures of welcome (including applause by the president’s bitterest critics), to the acknowledgements at the opening of the speech, to the post-speech analyses restating what the president said, to the opposition response that almost no one (by comparison) watches or listens to, but still must be given, the patterns are predictable and almost unbreakable. Last night, we witnessed the remarkable spectacle of our Democratic president identifying our Republican speaker of the house as a model of American success . . . and our Democratic vice president leading a standing ovation to reinforce that acknowledgement. Aren’t these the same folks who have been at war in Washington since 2010?

But that’s the way the ritual goes. Everyone has a role to play. Everyone knows the script. Everyone plays his/her part.

Given all this ritual and predictability, one might ask, “What’s the point?”

Fair question.

The culture of the United States is remarkable for many things, one of which is our general disdain for custom and formality. Presidents back to Andrew Jackson have broken with accepted standards of behavior by heads of state, serving up impolitic comments, improper culinary offerings (and uncivil physical lashes, in Jackson’s case) as if to prove that we Americans don’t put up with any of that fancy and formal stuff.

But we, too, have our rituals. And we need them.

Whether or not there is something magical about an annual event, whether or not each State of the Union has a substantive effect on the direction of the nation or the political fate of its maker is, for me at least, not the point.

The point is that we have decided that, once a year, everything should stop long enough for an elected leader (president, governor, or mayor) to take a stab at explaining where we’ve been, what we’re up against, and where we ought to go. Whether we are likely to agree with nearly everything that leader says, or unlikely to agree with a single sentence, we all acknowledge the leader’s right to speak and, at least to some extent, to be heard.

The rituals are how we create space for the speech. Without the formalities and protocols, the seething conflicts, partisan or personal, would prompt many to interrupt, walk out, heckle or harass the leader. Opponents do it

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all the rest of the time; why not in this moment?

Ritual is the reason not to. Granting these “state of” speech events ritual significance sets them apart from ordinary speeches. It’s not the content, really. It’s the occasion, and the respect we have chosen to give to the occasion.

I think we need these moments. We need something, every once in a while, that prompts us to rise above the conflicts of the day, above the persistent causes of conflict, even above enduring hatred, long enough to acknowledge, if for only 30 or 45 minutes, that the people did choose someone to lead in this particular time, and that the people’s choice brings with it a certain claim on our attention, a certain demand for respect.

Once in a while . . . maybe only once in a great while . . . it is good for us to remember that.