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The State of the Union as Pep Rally and Stump Speech

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.

But the reason that occurred to me the other day was the pep rally aspect of the whole thing (which is also another reason why I can’t stand campaign speeches). I hated pep rallies when I was in high school. I’m just not a rah rah, support the team kinda guy. Never have been. They set my bullshit meter off in a major way. No, our high school is not the greatest high school in the history of the world. Neither is our country or our state or our city or our favorite team. And frankly, I find that kind of rhetoric a bit creepy.

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.

Comments

  1. Randide, Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin says

    I don’t want it to be this way. I want to be able to take the things our political leaders say seriously.

    *Stands up and applauds for 15 minutes*

  2. doublereed says

    I don’t want it to be this way. I want to be able to take the things our political leaders say seriously.

    *Stands up and applauds for 15 minutes*

    *Sits unmoving in disapproval*

  3. eric says

    I didn’t see it, but from the commentary surrounding it, this SOTU was notable because he lifted a big middle finger at the GOP and told them he was going to start enacting policy without them. Of course maybe Bush said the same thing by talking about signing statements, and I just don’t remember.

  4. says

    Political speech: n, 1) a contest wherein speakers strive to say as little as possible while using as many words as they can; 2) presentation that outlines a plan of public affairs for private advantage; 3) a socially acceptable form of public masturbation.

  5. grumpyoldfart says

    Dean Jaensch (retired Professor of Political and International Studies at The Flinders University of South Australia) used to appear on talk back radio in the 1980s and several times described a trick he used to play when invited to speak at political rallies. He would go through the party manifesto and gather cheers all along the way – until he suddenly stopped reading and told the audience that he had made a blunder. He had brought the wrong manifesto and the audience had been cheering the promises made by the opposing political party.

  6. magistramarla says

    Ah, but it was so much fun to watch Boehner try to keep from booing and when the camera panned out over the congresscritters, to watch the wingnuts sit on their hands and purse their lips while the Democrats clapped.
    Stockman from here in Texas was the absolute rudest, since he stood up and walked out.

  7. says

    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.

    It’s rather surprising to me just how many people don’t understand what a politician is and does. Making promises they can’t/don’t keep is pretty much the whole gig. Moreover, most of them are clearly delusional about how much power a president really has!

    I have a friend who’s a frothing TEA Party conservative who never says or writes “Obama” without some form of “liar” within a few words before or after his name. When I ask for specifics, he mostly cites campaign promises or plain old RWNJ talking points, “Benghazi! Fast & Furious! Muslim sympathizer!” .

  8. meg says

    it’s almost entirely made up of empty rhetoric and is a boring and awkward affair for everyone involved.

    I thought that was all political speeches? /snark

  9. Johnny Vector says

    Geez Ed, don’t you remember what Principal Obama put down at the pep rally today?

    <Flexitron and woo-y sounds>

    In announcing for the assembly today, I am reminded of the words of the foundry… fou… founder, of Morse Science High, Yucapia Heap, who pressed the first bricks with his own hands. “Knowledge for the pupi… the people”, he said. “Give them a light, and they’ll follow it anywhere!”

    Who’s with me?

  10. says

    Of course it’s just like a pep rally. Of course, in Mr. Obama’s case it’s like the captain of the Grambling football team giving a pep talk about the need for fairness, an end to racism and equal rights–at the University of Alabama, in the 1890′s.

  11. Childermass says

    gworroll @ 11: “I want to see a President return to the older tradition of just filing a written report.”

    Time for the State of the Union blog to replace the speech.

  12. kylawyer says

    Agreed in principal Ed, but there’s a larger and more important aspect. Obama is the President and the SOTU gives Obama the national spotlight, and thus an opportunity to set his agenda and send out his message in advance of the opposition. This sets the PR and media agenda for the up coming legislative “season” giving the executive a leg up in public approval. Especially important in the Obama era for the obvious reasons. Appealing to the broad swath of the nation and to his core voters, whether through useless platitudes or not, is vital for him to have any chance at pushing his agenda like it or not.

  13. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ Democommie – off topic sorry but thanks again for the links on the other Kemal Saleem thread a few days ago – certainly a good jumping off point to some other good sites there.

    Eg. this one : Via loonwatch : http://www.jewsagainstislamophobia.org/

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