Except for the civic religion on ostentatious display at the annual presidential state of the union address, one can hardly think of a reason for the tradition at all. It’s not as though we learn something substantive or even hear a truthful material claim. (Yes, it could be useful in launching a president’s reelection campaign.)
I’m sure someone somewhere has pointed out that democracy is not only a religion but also the opiate of the masses. When too few people could swallow the silly claim that the head of state represented the applicable deity, a new way was needed to assure the people’s enduring acquiescence in their own subjugation. What better way than by having them believe that the power rested in their own hands? They had only to use it wisely (that is, by choosing those whom history if not Yahweh had ordained to rule). If they didn’t, the fault was theirs alone. Thus no need for revolution or regicide. They needed only to traipse to the polls when called and participate more conscientiously in the collective exercise of their sovereignty. Helping to articulate and then loyally abiding by the General Will was the essence of freedom, after all. So stop complaining and participate civically!
The rest follows. The rites and holidays serve to remind us of our purported awesome power. Each year, then, the president goes before a joint session of Congress to report on the state of our union, with the cabinet (minus one) and the august justices of the Supreme Court duly assembled. The presidential box is graced by people who, for some very poor reason, allow themselves to be politically exploited by the occupant of the White House.
From there, it’s all pretty routine, and Joe Biden stuck to the script. Take his boast about creating a record number of jobs, shrinking the deficit, controlling inflation, and the like. We’ve heard it countless times before. If something has gotten worse, say, crime, vow to make it better but accept no responsibility.
Never mind that the job growth (attributable to enterprise) was predictable with the waning of the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors beyond the power even of the Oval Office. Never mind that huge budget deficits loom as far as the eye can see — Washington is addicted to spending our money — and that the debt limit has again been reached and will soon be raised. The sky’s the limit, you know. That justifies forecasts of more Fed inflation and malinvestment, then recession and involuntary joblessness.
Never mind that the federal budget line labeled “interest on the debt” continues to increase and will tower over ever more spending categories. Never mind that Biden’s Buy American policy means that the government will intentionally spend more of our money than necessary in procuring materials for infrastructure projects it should have nothing to do with anyway. (And leave foreigners with fewer dollars with which to buy what politically unfavored Americans make.)
Never mind that newly proposed price controls and regulations will lower the living standard of everyone, lower-income people included. And never mind that “illegal” immigrants aren’t the problem with the welfare state or the source of fentanyl. (That would be the misnamed war on drugs.)
Mind none of that. Just jump to your feet multiple times and applaud. That goes even for you good folks at home — just in case your smart TV is watching you back. (I’m just sayin’.)
I did enjoy the lively give-and-take that went on when Biden said that “some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset.” Republicans were heard to shout back, “No!” and “Liar.”
That’s another game they all play: pretending that Social Security and Medicare won’t crash — sunset is too gentle a verb — on their own without any help from Congress. Both programs will be insolvent in the short term. The implicit crash provision was built into the original legislation in the 1930s and 1960s.
But before the people had a chance even to wonder if the chief executive was indeed lying, he engaged in classic misdirection by saying, “Let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors.”
Everyone — yes, everyone — got to their feet and applauded. He might as well have said, “Let’s all agree that the law of gravity has been suspended!”
The Republicans of course have their own overlapping game. They brand themselves as the party of limited government (but not of limited military or surveillance) and fiscal responsibility and expect us to pay no attention to the small men behind the curtain who spend oodles of our money just like their opponents do. They are bad wizards and bad men. Since raising taxes would go against the brand, they are, despite their incessant squawking, secret agents of deficit spending, which means inflation and recession. Of course, many Republicans — MAGA and the other denominations — thrill to the words Buy American and to any industrial policy as long as the prefix strategic is attached. That’s music to their ears. And they don’t want immigrants polluting the culture or labor market. The populists of left and right are substantially of one mind.
How reassuring that it’s business as usual in old D.C. Thank goodness the adults are back in charge. The civic religion can proceed with its rituals mostly intact.