State of the Union 2019

Should we boycott the State of the Union, even if we feel that the President is a reprehensible person or a terrible figure?

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I don’t agree with not listening to it at all. I think that the speech is meant to be an address to Congress by the way the law is written. But clever rhetoricians cannot avoid writing it by thinking about it as eavesdropping - being allowed to see an event that you are not invited to. Being able to hear and see what two giant forces in governing do when they meet. People who watch it might interpolate themselves as seeing something that is elite and closed-door in a way. Writing the speech this way allows for some powerful rhetorical moves to influence the people under the guise of, or in the name of, asking the Congress to do something or (more powerfully) for help.

But the more reasonable and mainstream read is that it’s a speech for the American people under the very thin veil that it is an address to Congress. That’s too bad, as the methods of persuasion - and the power of rhetoric - are somewhat lost in a very simple construction of a wink.

But then again, these speeches are less and less a part of rhetoric every year. Every year, they are more and more infected with the discourse of apparent truth. Presidents state claims and tell stories without any attempt to address those who might have doubts about what the President is saying.

Everything a political figure says should be questioned, which should be taken into account by the political figure, and they should attempt to make what they are saying somewhat palatable to the doubtful audience. If not, one could make what one is saying palatable to one’s own supporters - but those people are going to cheer anyway. So why just state things and not try to weave them together using reasons?

It’s strange. And maybe a reason to boycott, as the Congresswoman suggests we should. But I think that one of the best things about public political discourse is riffing off of it. We use these speeches and addresses - including the terrible Presidential debates - as platforms to reach other people with our political beliefs and ideas. For that reason I think it’s worth watching, just so we can base our discourse off of what was offered by the President.

So what happened?

The speech moved between rather obvious opposites and there was no surprise when the President asked the Congress to reject gridlock for it’s natural and obvious opposite, greatness. The first third of the speech was pretty bad, pretty simplistic, and seemed to be the way you’d start a speech if you just sat down to write it in order without thinking it through.

I wonder why the President never points to particularities when making claims such as the number of jobs created, the number of people no longer requiring food stamps, etc. What would it mean for the President to do a bit of work to justify these claims? It would be better if the President would try to historicize the speech a bit, instead of using words as a showcase of uncontestable truths. Everyone finds the words of a President to be contestable.

Sadly the State of the Union is not a rhetorical event because the President realizes, as does everyone in there, that all that is expected is the announcement of facts without context or explanation. I think that the National government has given up on the idea of trying to persuade, move, or invoke new ideas with this address. It is simply going to be liked or hated based on how you feel about the President.

Not the best political model to have, is it?

I also think it would be interesting for the President to not compare his work to other administrations or where we were when that President took office, but to give images of the quality of everyday life in various parts of the country, in various walks of life, that would reveal the power of the choice and the great lives that are being led due to the choices made in Washington.

It seems really odd to talk about particular policy success and say the Union is strong based on that. A more traditional rhetorical appeal would be to talk about what the Union stands for, what the principles are, and how the pieces of legislation that have gone through show consistency with these uncontroversial principles.

I think after solidifying one’s administration and one’s legislative successes as part of the norm of the United States, based on timeless principles, then you are ready to talk about what needs to happen next. I think that there should be a very clear line and very clear division between what American stands for, what has been done to continue that legacy and that greatness, and how the Congress has the power to make or break it.

It’s really vital for the President to retreat into the limits of the role when on the greatest stage provided to them, and point out that Congress is more responsible for the direction of law and policy than the President ever can be. Trump tried to do this, emphasis on tried, when he described his version of the facts as to what comes across the southern U.S. border. It just wasn’t very convincing because of what it’s saddled with. I would advise the President to be less specific here and talk about the need for security in immigration as a whole. I think that the specifics harm the larger case in this instance.

Everyone can agree that crimes should be prevented and people should not be in the country who have not completed the proper screening processes. The argument needs to be made that somehow the process and procedures can’t work right today. Perhaps a connection to the “hottest economy” claim would be a good move here. There also could be a really strong argument made here that denying legitimate immigrants access by the accident of trying to prevent these horrible crimes is justified, as good immigrants will be taken even with the strongest scrutiny.

The stories of the individuals should be used as evidence that the general approach of the administration is one that is good because it lines up on the level of principle. The argument falls apart if you use these people as evidence that a particular law is good. A principle of organization of a space will always be far more rhetorically powerful than saying, “I cleaned up this mess, and then this one.”  It’s great that these people turned their lives around and the President helped them, but he’s not getting the mileage he needs out of these powerful examples. I don’t think the family who suffered from a crime committed by an illegal immigrant was used very well. I think it needs to be infused with much more energea, the word that Quintilian used to talk about the creation of images in front of an audience. This does not have to be graphic; this could easily be the suggestion that these crimes have no pattern. But it must be done in a persuasive, haunting way.

The wall arguments were the most looked forward to I bet. I think that the argument was stretched too far. The President should have discussed simply the reduction of illegal crossings and that as the goal, since illegal crossings are primarily the source of all the dangers, all the drugs, and all the violent crime. This connection would be a powerful one and also help with the creation of the image of the policy he wants in the minds of the listeners. Of course, this suggestion sits well with those who see the State of the Union as an address for the American people not the Congress.

The last part of the speech had a lot of interesting calls for future policy. But in the light of the weakness of the Wall portion, these parts shined. I wonder if he could have discussed these before he talked about the wall.

The other controversial topic, abortion, seemed to be a very strange transition. I think that phrasing the policy this way appealed to those who were already on his side. But it could have been said in a way that was much less direct and still clear to them what it was that they should argue for in the Congress. But this abortion policy might be a way to regain support for the administration after the disastrous wall discourse that has happened. If I were advising the President, I would suggest a much more concealed argument here. People who know will know, and those who do not know that this is about abortion, will support the idea of a life-culture, whatever that is. But why not spend more time on security and the wall?

The speech failed to thread the policies all under a rubric of security. That would have been the best way to mark the way forward here. That should have been the overall theme of the speech and a great way to connect a lot of these policy ideas in a way that made more sense, and it would surprise a lot of people to think about these initiatives under the title of security.

In the end the State of the Union more and more does not benefit from the attention of the rhetorician. It’s very debatable whether or not these are rhetorical events, or are they a simple display of facts that appear for our assent or ire. Perhaps this could be theorized as the discourse of extreme rhetorical poverty, but that is not something I am interested in doing.

One of the most cringeworthy moments of these events is when rhetoricians react in shock and dismay that hypocrisy and lies persuade people, or that people hold positions of violence and hate. Rhetoricians should not be examining fact-check, or connections to what is true. Speeches should be evaluated as attempts to way or convey perspective. Because of their nature, speeches cannot access what is true, they can convince people that their experiences are universal, or deserve to be universal.

Theorizing how to move people away from the idea that there’s a correspondence between truth and speech, and get them to accept that the only gap exists between interpretation and interpretation is a better way to evaluate policy. It would also require careful listening, as the pressure would be on the President to interpret responsibility for the data in the same style that Presidents often call upon, blame, or question the Congress.