As people wring their hands over the “toxic” rhetoric swirling throughout public life, a proposal from Colorado Senator Mark Udall has been gaining traction and winning approving nods from The Concerned Elite. The idea? At the upcoming State Of The Union address on January 25, don’t seat Members of Congress by party but mix them up.
This idea, originally proposed by Third Way one week ago, seeks to end the spectacle of one side of the audience standing and applauding while the other sits in stony silence. The intended result is harmony, or at least a scaling back of partisan tension.
I know that many people I respect are in favor of this. However, I think it’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — a futile endeavor that distracts from the real problem.
In the first place, it will actually benefit Democrats by making it appear that the whole room is standing in applause at certain points rather than just half. In the second place, it seems foolish to think that making Members switch desks as if they are wayward elementary school children will make the class run any smoother.
The Real Problem
A more important flaw, though, is that the problem is not that we disagree — it is that we express our disagreements in ways that are disagreeable. Everything in public life feels as if it is a game of one-upsmanship and advantage-seeking.
One key way that this plays out is in the annual game of applause lines in State Of The Union addresses. At least since the Johnson administration, it has been a tradition to clap for the things that your party likes, and remain stonily silent at the things your party doesn’t. (So Johnson got notable stony silence at his mention of the Civil Rights Act.)
Now it has become tradition to interrupt the speech repeatedly, and part of the journalistic coverage involves counting these interruptions and timing them, as if the energy with which the party faithful express support for their own positions reflects something other than the energy of self-interest.
All this clapping, and the focus wasted upon it, seems to me to diminish the importance and value of the State Of The Union. A better initiative, I would propose, is for all Members to agree not to clap. Let the President give the annual update uninterrupted. Let the American people hear it in full, without the necessity of knowing how much the two sides wish to express their agreement or disagreement (save that for the spin room afterwards).
(Photo credit: Flickr user ‘dvs’.)