The State of the Union address is not one of America’s oldest traditions. But it is old enough to feel venerable. Introduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and continued, with some inconsistency, to our present day, the address has been an opportunity for the President of the United States to lay out his political agenda for the nation as the head of government. It has also served as an opportunity for the president to demonstrate the basic unity of the varied interests represented by the elected and appointed leaders of the American government, as a head of state. The State of the Union Address is a ceremony—one that demonstrates the tensile strength of American civic society.
For the first time in American history this month, however, the Speaker of the House of Representatives specifically declined to invite the President to address the assembled houses of Congress on the state of the union. The reason Speaker Pelosi gave for this was inadequate security, as the Secret Service has been underfunded due to the government shutdown—itself an unprecedented display of polarization and institutional breakdown in American governance. It is a historic landmark for the state of American divisions, and calls to mind the need for a new articulation of the unified values and interests of the American people.
Does such a unity of values and interests still exist (if it ever did?) Hopeful minds believe so. This Thursday, January 31st, Better Angels will be holding its own State of the Union Address outside of Washington D.C., livestreamed to members and observers across the country. The address will highlight those values that still bind Americans together, casting a new narrative for American political culture and setting a higher standard for American civil discourse. Better Angels and other groups like it seek not merely to preach, but also to organize people around these values on the assumption that some ethics are transcendent of the modern left/right divide.
It takes quite a bit of reflection to unearth these transcendent values, however, in the context of our current polarization. One might simply say that these values are freedom and equality, echoing the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” and are “endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet the easy rhetorical harmony of liberty and equality resolves itself into mere hollow platitudes when we realize that, beyond the cheery campaign speeches of politicians, the practical realizations of these values are sometimes at odds with each other; different people have differing conceptions of their meanings in actual political and social life.
Liberty for progressives has traditionally had more to do with freedom of lifestyle, equality more with a more equal distribution of resources. Conservatives have typically viewed liberty more in terms of economic freedom, with equality interpreted as equality of opportunity before the law, as opposed to a flattening of any perceived economic or social hierarchy.
Then there are, of course, the values we bring into this life not so much as Americans, but simply as human-beings. Progressives, conservatives and all other political groups in the United States tend to love their children and want them to succeed in Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness.” In general, for all of America’s civic rancor and shameful spurts of violence, it is fair to say that we generally wish to treat each other with respect, and to be treated with respect in turn. Democrats, Republicans, independents, and everyone in between- all are invested in their communities. Most profess religious faith, though many do not. But all right-minded people, one imagines, would profess to value moral truth and the importance of being a good neighbor.
Yet stated this way, these words have little power to overcome the differences between a party viewed, by its opponents, as having empowered a juvenile quasi-despot to encourage racism, abuse human rights and exploit the greatest Constitutional government in the world for personal profit, and a party viewed, by its opponents, as having encouraged a new generation of radicals to abandon the norms of freedom of speech and intellectual exchange in favor of violent protests, modified racial hierarchies and an un-American commitment to expansive state power. What values have the power to transcend these differences (be they real or perceived)?
In the book American Creation, historian Joseph J. Ellis recounts the foundational partisan divide that threatened the passage of the U.S. Constitution at the state ratifying conventions of 1788. Then, as now, the questions of the role and power of the federal government and the relative liberty of states and individuals were tremulous contentions. On the side of greater federal power was James Madison, remembered as the intellectual father of the Constitution- “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” On the side of greater rights for states and individuals was Patrick Henry, remembered as the great Virginian firebrand for American independence and decentralized government- “give me liberty or give me death!” The outcome of this collision was not only the seven articles of the Constitution, but its first ten Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, which illuminate the rights of the individual under the law. But despite the tensions and ambiguities they make for American civic ideals, neither the original articles of the Constitution itself, nor its additional amendments, provided closed answers to every, or even many, of the particular problems that would face the new federal government, the states, and the citizens of the young republic. As Ellis writes:
“The argument that eventually won out, which was a new and wholly unprecedented version of federalism, emerged from the messy political process itself rather than from the mind of any single thinker. In essence, the argument that triumphed defied logic and the accumulated wisdom of the entire European political tradition, for it made argument itself the answer by creating a framework in which federal and state authority engaged in an ongoing negotiation for supremacy, thereby making the Constitution, like history itself, an argument without end.”
In politics, we too often think of values as static convictions that plant us firmly in opinions that station us in permanent opposition to one or the other opposing worldviews with which we compete in the marketplace of ideas. Ideological principle becomes moral dogma. But embedded in the design of our civic structure is a deference to the dialectic process of political dialogue that makes it possible for philosophical disagreement to exist within a realm of patriotic empathy, empathy between people who have vastly differing perspectives but fundamentally common interests. It is an empathy between people who have very different American experiences but who share, or are willing to share, a love of country and humanity.
This patriotic empathy has existed between partisan opponents throughout American history, from Barack Obama and John McCain all the way back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” More importantly, this was an ethic that, in varying degree across history, had been a general truism within American civic culture in the 20th century.
This is less true today than it has been in previous decades. The remarkable rise of polarization, a consequence of many things—including shifting American demographics, sensationalism in mainstream and social media, and changes in the operation of the American government itself, from aggressive gerrymandering to 90’s era congressional customs limiting the degree to which members of congress fraternize—has led us to what seems to be an intractable point in our democratic culture. It is a point wherein we are no longer able to see value in the views of our ideological opposites. It is a point wherein the imprint of differing experiences that leads us to our different views does nothing to make us forgivable in each other’s eyes.
Yet if both liberty and equality are meaningful ideals to Americans generally, and if reasonable people do prefer peaceful and collaborative coexistence with their countrymen rather than the high-anxiety social conflicts that have become daily fare in the United States, then the enemy of a more harmonious civil society may not be the elusiveness of fixed agreement on broad, complicated issues. The enemy of a more constructive political culture may instead be the fact that we have come to see zero-sum political warfare between groups as the fundamental core of American politics, when it is fundamentally not.
In this country and beyond, we need to learn, or re-learn, to speak a political language that does not identify long-term political progress with the extinguishing of the power of any particular political opposition factions. Instead, we must find a willingness to embrace the tensions inherent to our different experiences of American life, and the competing principles at the heart of opposing American ideologies. Perhaps such tensions are immune to perfect eventual resolution. But we must accept them graciously in favor of a continual progress towards transcendence that, while never final, might similarly be without end.
John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Better Angels, a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and author of the upcoming book Transcending Politics: Perspectives for a Divided Nation. His column, The Wood Review, is published at The Conversation weekly.