State of the Union: When Politicians Substitute Platitudes for Policies

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’m not a big fan of state of the union addresses. They’re vague declarations of what the president wants to do, but the details are glossed over, and without congressional support little of what is proposed is ultimately achieved (if you’re curious, this year Obama wants to cut community college costs, lower taxes for the poor and middle class, guarantee sick leave, achieve gender equal pay, increase spending on infrastructure and research, reform the tax code, negotiate with Iran, prioritize cyber security, fight global warming, and close Guantanamo Bay–how much of that do you think will actually happen?). To make matters worse, they’re often full of saccharine, pull-at-your-heartstrings anecdotes (this year was all about Rebekah and Ben from Minneapolis). To put it bluntly, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, but not much substance. The press dissects the speech to keep itself amused, and then we resume politics as usual. Rarely does a president say something so brilliant that it fundamentally changes the way the public views the issues at hand, much less congress. In the recent speech, I noticed something else I don’t like, something that’s easy to overlook–the way that presidents, and politicians in general, use verbal slights of hand to create a false sense of unity.

If you haven’t seen the 2015 state of the union, you can watch it (though I can’t fathom why you would want to subject yourself to the thing):

If you’d rather read it, here’s the transcript. If you don’t want to watch it or read it, I don’t blame you–I’m happy to quote and summarize the bits you’ll need.

So after the president finished summarizing complex policy proposals in a line or two and telling the traditional state of the union sob story about the couple from Minnesota, he decided to make reference to the speech he made in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention, the one where he claimed that there were no red states or blue states, no black America or white America, but a United States of America. He claimed that he still felt that was true and declared that he wanted a “better politics”. This better politics would exclude just about all of the things we presently associate with contemporary American politics:

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.

A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments — but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

The president talked about these things as if they were conscious choices our politicians are making voluntarily. The truth is that politicians use fear, demonization, gaffes, fake controversies, and dark money because these things work. When politicians try to win votes by having serious intellectual conversations about the issues, they lose, and that’s why none of our politicians today are any good at arguing about the issues in an intellectually serious way. Voters can’t stand politicians that openly know more about the issues than they do. Those who try to make decent arguments are dismissed as elitists, too “out of touch” and “ivory tower”. To be clear, this is nobody’s fault–voters just don’t have the resources to constructively participate in these debates. This is why the state of the union address has devolved into vague assertions about things the president would like to do and sappy anecdotes. It’s the reason you will never see a president publicly make formal arguments that would meet anything like academic standards. The public doesn’t want to have to work to understand the issues, the policies, and the arguments. The public wants straightforward theater, so the politicians that win elections give them that theater.

Certainly this is what the media wants, especially television news networks. It’s very difficult to get a complex argument across on television, and it’s impossible to break such an argument down into digestible sound bites that talking heads can use as clubs with which to beat one another over the head. Campaign donors are looking for candidates who will act as brands for their own political agendas, not serious independent minds in their own right. The politicians we have reflect what the structure of our political system encourages. A “better politics” will not be possible until that system is changed, and the Obama administration has not managed to do anything that substantively changes that system. All it has had to offer is empty rhetoric about how great things would be if we all just decided to be different from what we are.

But then the president continued. He started trying to unify the audience by highlighting areas of common ground. Here’s what he said:

We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose, but surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.

Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young student, and agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child, and that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

We may go at it in campaign season, but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

Notice anything? Each time, when the president claims the country is unified about something, he refers to a vague goal instead of any kind of specific policy or procedure by which that goal can be achieved.

Obviously most Americans think it’s great that teen pregnancy and abortion are at all time lows and that every woman should have the healthcare she needs, but we disagree about what healthcare she needs in the first place.

Obviously most Americans want laws that uphold our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants, but we disagree about what that tradition is and what it requires.

Obviously most Americans think that the right to vote is sacred, but we disagree about what the right to vote requires and what we need to do to protect it.

Obviously most Americans want everyone to feel safe around the police and want the police to feel safe around everyone, obviously most Americans think it’s great that the crime rate and incarceration rate have fallen together, and obvious most Americans want a justice system that protects and serves everyone, but we disagree about what is needed to make our justice system protect and serve everyone, why these rates are falling, what is needed to make civilians and police officers feel safe.

I’ve said that our political discourse is being dumbed down, that we’re talking in vague platitudes and soundbites instead of making rigorous arguments for complex policies. This is one of the most insidious features of that process–the increasing tendency for politicians to profess their support for goals that everyone shares while ignoring altogether the issue of how those goals are supposed to be achieved. These days, politicians declare that they’re going to “create jobs” with no expectation whatsoever that they will be expected to explain how they’re going to do this by most of the voting public.

And it’s not just Obama–the republican response did the same kinds of things. Senator Joni Ernst’s response (transcript here) contained the same vague goals. Jobs, free trade, tax reform, fight terrorism, replace Obamacare, reduce executive powers, balance the budget, cyber security, confront Iran, stop abortion. But how? And why? Some of these goals sound like the very same goals the president has, but yet there’s clearly deep disagreement about how these goals should be pursued. There are other goals that the two sides don’t share, and there are surely reasons for this. But we don’t get a meaningful exchange of arguments about either of these things. We just get a series of vague goals asserted, mixed with a bunch of sappy stories about Ernst’s life in Iowa.

For most of my life, I’ve lived near Chicago. Recently, Illinois elected a republican governor, Bruce Rauner. Rauner ran his entire campaign around the idea that it was time for a “new direction” to “bring back Illinois” and create a “booming economy”. This needed to be done “competitively” and with “compassion”. You can read his victory speech from this past November here–all the fundamental ideas are there. The thing is that Rauner never actually articulated how he was going to do any of these things. His inauguration speech was the same. He made sappy references to his life story. He vowed to pass an economic package to make Illinois “competitive” and create a “booming economy”. But every politician and every voter wants those things. The question is what Rauner is actually going to do to achieve them, but throughout his entire campaign for the governor’s office, no one forced him to answer this question. For all Illinois voters know, Rauner is going to create a booming economy by sacrificing 10,000 children to Baal-hamon, the Carthaginian sky god.

Appealing to universal goals is no substitute for comprehensive policies and serious argument, but politicians have discovered that voters are so hapless that they will let them get away with running for office without making any substantive commitments to do anything in particular. Where did all of this begin? Perhaps it was in 1968, when Richard Nixon claimed he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam when no such plan existed. Many Americans voted for Nixon on this basis, but once elected Nixon went on to not only keep the war going until 1973, but to escalate it and begin bombing Cambodia, arguably contributing to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

If voters don’t know what they’re voting for or why they’re voting for what they’re voting for, what’s the point of democracy? Whatever heartfelt unity declarations Barack Obama may make, our political system is fundamentally broken, and the sooner we confront this reality and deal with it the better.