I‘ve made no secret of my complete disdain for the State of the Union address, pointing out that it’s almost entirely made up of empty rhetoric and is a boring and awkward affair for everyone involved. But if finally occurred to me the morning after the most recent one why I hate it so much: It’s a pep rally.
There are two primary reasons, actually. The first is that the speech itself is nothing more than a campaign stump speech, full of shallow applause lines and empty rhetoric. I thus hate it for the same reason that I hate stump speeches, and it doesn’t matter who the candidate is or what party they’re from. In 2008 I covered an Obama campaign rally in Lansing, Michigan as a reporter and spent the entire time cringing as the audience exploded in applause at every trite, focus-group tested catchphrase he threw out.
One of the things he said in his standard stump speech, by the way, was how hopelessly out of touch Hillary Clinton was for supporting an individual mandate to buy health insurance. He had campaign ads running that accused her of hiding the fact that she had such a mandate in her health care plan, which would result in people being penalized and that’s just terrible. When he delivered that line, his cheerleaders roared with approval, just as I’m sure they roar with approval now when he says the exact opposite.
So part of why I hate this speech so much is part of the larger fact that I just plain hate most political rhetoric. It is almost always shallow, overly simplistic and highly dishonest. Much of it has nothing to do with what a candidate or politician actually believes or intends to do. It’s usually just a recitation of bland, misleading buzzwords and catchphrases designed not to illuminate but to disguise and obscure. If you want to figure out what a politician is going to do, pay less attention to the rhetoric and more attention to the agendas of the groups that are their base of support.
I’ve often used the phrase “sports fan politics” to describe how Americans tend to think about candidates and parties, which really just describes the tribalism that takes over and short-circuits our ability to think rationally. When someone on our team gets caught doing something wrong, we excuse it away; when someone on the rival team does the same thing, it’s the most horrible thing ever. We do the same thing in politics. When we support a politician, when he’s in our tribe (or we’re in his or hers, I suppose), we excuse away every failure, justify every action, and cheer wildly at everything they say. If that politician is in the other tribe, everything they do is horrible, every idea they have is ridiculous if not outright evil. And we see this play out at the SOTU in obvious ways.
So it isn’t so much the SOTU that bothers me. That’s just the most obvious example. It’s the whole nature of our political discourse. Political rhetoric now most resembles an infomercial, where the audience oohs and aahs at some quasi-charismatic host saying things that vacillate between stupid and dishonest. And as Gretchen pointed out on my Facebook page, this cynicism is the product of my core idealism. I don’t want it to be this way. I want to be able to take the things our political leaders say seriously. Alas, all we are offered, in this speech and most others, is banality.