Some people hated it. Some people loved it. Just about everyone seems to miss the real point.
The most disturbing part of the annual “State of the Union” address by the US president does not concern the specifics of the content, or the policies — as wonderful or objectionable as they may be. The core problem is the very strange presumption that one man comprehends an entire nation and its meaning, embodies something like a guiding spirit of a people, and thereby earns the right to manage the entire collective from the top down through the judicious use of power.
In a time of leviathan in which an incomprehensibly immense government aspires to master and administer every aspect of life itself, the notion that one powerful man, having processed all relevant data and related causes and effects, can stand behind a podium and sum up a national spirit and agenda, the very State of the Union, plunges us into the realm of total fantasy.
We flatter ourselves to believe that this is not an age of faith but rather an age of reason. The purpose and ethos of the State of the Union address are not reasonable.
Maybe such a presumption of knowledge wouldn’t be such a terribly offensive idea in an age of liberalism, where the government had little to no power. If the government had such limited functioning, it would be more plausible for one person to report on the activities not of the nation but of the executive branch of the government itself.
The Age of Laissez Faire
If this were President Rutherford B. Hayes or President Grover Cleveland speaking about their jobs, the State of the Union address would not be as absurd. They ruled before the federal government could tax income, manage schools, regulate consumer products, arrest and jail people for their consumption choices, unleash a police state, or start wars without congressional approval — all before government consisted of hundreds of agencies, thousands of divisions staffed with millions of permanent and unaccountable lifetime employees enforcing an accumulated cruft of 150 years of legislation.
And, as a point of fact, every president from Thomas Jefferson through the 19th century delivered his address in the form of a humble letter. It was not the “State of the Union.” It was an annual accounting by the president to Congress. It explained what the president was doing, more in the form of an annual employment review. The president was in the hot seat and Congress was to be his judge.
The Age of Empire
This pattern was broken by Woodrow Wilson — the imperial president who gave us the income tax, the Fed, and World War I. Wilson forged the template for the rest of history. He shocked Congress by delivering his address in person, with the beginnings of the modern ritual attendant upon the event.
Thus was born the modern cult of the presidency, built under the leadership principle. And yet, even then, his address was largely limited to matters of state: what the government was doing and why. Wilson’s imperium was over government, not the nation as a whole, so his speech didn’t address how government would manage the whole of life itself.
Then came Franklin Roosevelt and the centralized economic planning of the New Deal. Nothing was outside the purview of Washington. Once the United States entered World War II, the annual report to Congress became the State of the Union, as if the presidential mind was capable of extracting all relevant information, sea to shining sea, putting it in poetic words, presenting a vision for this gigantic collective, and embodying the whole spirit of a people. Remember that this was the epoch of the dictator and every statesman in the world, in his heart of hearts, aspired to be that guy.
It was also the beginning of the media age, so the message to Congress became a message to the entire country, attempting to somehow capture and characterize the whole of our lives. The advent of the modern State of the Union address in 1942 really amounted to a nationalization of the whole population.
FDR said in this first State of the Union speech, implausibly, in the midst of massive death by conscription and material privation of war: “I am proud to say to you that the spirit of the American people was never higher than it is today — the Union was never more closely knit together — this country was never more deeply determined to face the solemn tasks before it.”
What Is this "Vision" Stuff?
Just look at those words. Are we really being asked to believe that the American people as a whole have a spirit, and that the president is somehow magically ordained to know its height? That he knows all previous collective spirits in American history and can know for sure, based on his omniscient measuring skills, that it has never been higher? And can a country really be “determined” in the sense that it has a unified will, no different from an individual will, and it acts in history as an aggregate?
There is nothing about this sense that embodies the idea of freedom. “The American spirit” — or the spirit of any people — is not a singular entity but a social order in which millions and billions of individuals have rights and shape their own lives in cooperation with others based on their peaceful choices.
No Masters, No Slaves
Freedom is about an infinite diversity of changing plans, aspirations, and circumstances of time and place. It is also about a future that unfolds unpredictably in light of human choice, learning, growing, and trial and error, one life at a time. Freedom has no master at the top who knows what’s best for everyone.
There is a reason that despotism has long been associated with an all-knowing Great Leader. And of course all good things that happen under the Great Leader’s watch are due to him. Every healing, every new job, every new industry, every calming of every civil strife, every broken family that found its way, every lost soul that found salvation — all credit is due to him who rules: so knowing, so benevolent, so generous and loving. All of us live in waiting for the next miracle from the hand that feeds us, clothes us, educates us, and makes us whole.
Maybe you can say, "Oh, this posturing doesn’t really matter. It’s just political rhetoric." And that is true, but we should not be so dismissive about it. If this type of language were coming from a pompous local pastor, or a bloviating businessperson at a Rotary luncheon, we would be free to ignore it. But it’s different when it comes from the head of state with the power to do unthinkable things whether we like it or not.
Since the time of FDR, this speech has been designed to perpetuate an all-encompassing political program, and, also, to marginalize the disgruntled, to treat dissidents like non-persons, to disregard and dismiss anyone who doesn’t fall in line with its plans. This is why these speeches can so often make your skin crawl.
There are fact checkers and commentators who oppose the specific points of the State of the Union. Of course, there are plenty of bad policy ideas pushed through this venue. And those are easy to refute.
Government cannot and does not create jobs. Government cannot bring health and wealth to a country. Government cannot make people smarter. It cannot cause incomes to rise by taxing some people more and transferring the proceeds to a bureaucracy. The best thing that government can do is get out of the way so that people can begin to build their own security and prosperity.
But the specifics of the policies proposed in these addresses are not the worst part. The most objectionable aspect of the annual State of the Union is its epistemological conceit. The president has no access to the information he would need in order to know what he claims to know. He is a mere mortal who lives in real time, like the rest of us. He does not know the State of the Union.
The single hardest part of life as we know it is understanding the state of our own individual lives. Parents with teenagers know that it is a full-time job just to keep up with what their own kids are doing. Owners of small businesses scramble every day just to know what is going on in their shops. Managers of medium-sized companies quickly discover that the only way forward is to trust others to know and manage the best they can. CEOs start their jobs with the presumption that their best hope for success is to outsource as much of their job as they can.
And yet, with the US president, we are being asked to believe that this one man can know not just the whole of the affairs of state but also the business of 316 million people: know all our hopes, frustrations, and aspirations; collect them all into a big bundle and characterize them in total; and know the best possible means to get us all from here to there.
In order to convince us all of this ridiculous idea — that he knows both the here and the there and all that falls between — the speeches have become increasingly personalized, constantly referring to archetypes within the social fabric. This is not an easy trick. The speech itself is produced not by magic fairies whispering truth in the presidential ear but rather through the much more mundane task of hiring professional ghostwriters who have heavy training in the political arts.
Speechwriter Cody Keenan is the man who did it for President Obama this year. Keenan is from Chicago, grew up privileged in Connecticut, attended Northwestern University, and had a long stint as a DC fixer and wordsmith for Senator Teddy Kennedy. Now at the top of his game, his task is to bamboozle the public into believing that one man with massive power has their interests at heart and that his awesome knowledge and compassion will somehow translate into wondrous programs that will improve everyone's lives.
It’s a charade. Those close to power know this. They know that the entire scene is artificial, designed to pump up power and influence for its own sake. They figure it’s dirty business, but someone has to do it.
Down deep, this is cynicism, and all of it is wrapped in spectacle. We are right to fear for the souls of people involved in such a hoax. A real idealist would not hope for ever-better ways of manufacturing myths through high-profile media events that disguise the true nature of government.
No Mere Mortal Can Know
A real idealist would hope for a world in which political leaders elicit massive public suspicion and opposition, not just when they are technically wrong on matters of policy but also because they pretend to possess knowledge and competence that no mortal can possibly have.
“If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order,” wrote F.A. Hayek in “The Pretence of Knowledge,” he will first need to recognize the “insuperable limits to his knowledge.” He will need to discover a “lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society — a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”
But let’s say that there absolutely must be a State of the Union address. What would a moral and honest speech say?
It’s your life. I am a person just like you, with no greater insight or wisdom than you, and no magical powers to create wealth or happiness. I can only get out of your way and wish you all the best as you, in cooperation with whomever you choose, make the most of this life, come what may.