It’s not been a good week for American democracy. First there was the omni-shambles of the Iowa Democratic Caucus. That was followed by the State of the Union address (SOTU), a supposedly solemn occasion which this year descended into a childish game of tit-for-tat.
SOTU is as close as the US gets to a Queen’s speech. Given the regrettable absence of a monarch, it is the President who addresses a joint session of Congress — not to mention a television audience of almost 50 million.
Facing re-election — and riled by the attempt to impeach him — Trump’s speech was bound to be highly politicised. (In any case, this is the President who delivered a rambunctiously partisan address to the Boy Scout Jamboree.)
A group of Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, responded preemptively by boycotting the event. From the Democrats who did attend, there were chants, boos and few walk-outs. This didn’t throw Trump off his theatrical delivery, but he appeared to refuse to shake Nancy Pelosi’s outstretched hand. The Speaker of the House then engaged in some theatrics of her own, ostentatiously ripping up a copy of Trump’s speech.
All-in-all, it was not an edifying spectacle.
Walter Bagehot once wrote about the “efficient” and “dignified” parts of the British constitution — i.e. the political and ceremonial aspects of our system of government.
The monarch, as Head of State, embodies the ceremonial part — ensuring that events of symbolic importance, like the State Opening of Parliament retain their dignity, no matter how heated things get otherwise.
In America, though, the efficient and dignified parts of the constitution are co-mingled in the person of the President. That’s a not a problem when someone like Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan occupies the Oval Office. Such individuals know that there’s a time for representing your party and a time for representing your nation. The switch from one role to the other isn’t without complication, but as long as some attempt is made, and is seen to be made, a space opens up for Americans to come together.
But when that person is Donald Trump, the political completely subverts the ceremonial. The tribal rites of the American nation, which are there to serve a unifying purpose, become yet another occasion for conflict.
No one forced the Democrats to also abandon basic decorum. They could have made a stand for dignity, but obviously decided not to go for that.