‘We oppose authoritarianism!’ our pundits all cry, before tuning in to watch the American president thunder like a god in front of a room full of clapping animatronic courtiers.
Yes, it is State of the Union season here in America, our most North Korean of political traditions. And while hating on the annual address has become so commonplace as to be almost trite, it’s still difficult not to seethe at the entire imperial spectacle. Remember when Congressman Joe Wilson dared to interrupt a SOTU by shouting ‘You lie!’ after Barack Obama lied about his health reform plan? Wilson was promptly hauled off to a CIA black site, while cable news mandarins shrieked about the end of decorum, civility, life as we knew it.
Still, the State of the Union has admittedly gotten better in recent years. From Wilson’s blasphemy to Nancy Pelosi tearing up Donald Trump’s speech, the possibility of democracy breaking out at one of these things has improved. And so this year we dared to dream. Would Congressman Paul Gosar lunge anime-style towards the podium? Would a Blazing Saddles-style food fight break out over the child tax credit?
Actually, this State of the Union began by looking like it might be even more unified than all the others put together. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, all came together to stand under a single flag — not ours but Ukraine’s. The beginning of Biden’s speech was less State of the Union than State of the Western World, as he lashed out at Vladimir Putin’s inhuman aggression with the most strident rhetoric any president had applied to a dictator since George W. Bush had a go at Saddam Hussein.
The ghost of 2003 was present and accounted for. ‘When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,’ Biden declared. Elsewhere, he referred to the ‘battle of democracies and autocracies,’ exactly the sort of sweeping binary we became accustomed to under Bush 43. Biden did make clear that he wouldn’t send American forces to fight and die in Ukraine, but his rhetoric was still strikingly hawkish. And it worked: lawmakers clapped and cheered and waved Ukrainian flags.
Then, just as the House chamber was bursting with bonhomie, just as it seemed like even the stone-faced Supreme Court justices might spring up and start ululating Eastern European war chants, a needle scratched against a record. It was on to Biden’s domestic agenda, and the usual fault lines of American politics cracked back open. The American Rescue Plan Act was praised without ever acknowledging the inflation it fed. More electric car charging stations were promised in spite of the strains they’ll create on the power grid. Tax credits were pledged to help weatherise homes even though Barack Obama was supposed to have gotten that done a decade ago.
Biden’s Democratic party is a self-perpetuating machine: massive amounts of money are spent on problems that don’t get solved which justifies the spending of massive amounts of more money. So it went Tuesday evening. And in true imperial fashion, no one was allowed to point this out, argue back. (I’m not counting the funeral-home ‘opposition response’, which can never be won, only survived. And for what it’s worth, I think Governor Kim Reynolds did survive, painting Biden as a 1970s redux and giving airtime to simmering parent anger over education.)
That’s not to say Biden’s speech was entirely devoid of fresh ideas. His plan to fight inflation by strengthening manufacturing seems like a red herring from the real problem of government spending, but it was still interesting. His Made in America agenda occasionally sounds a bit Trumpy. His promise to fund the police was evidence that Democrats are at least trying to move on from their colic phase of 2020. And we shouldn’t sell short that heartfelt support for the people of Ukraine. If Americans can’t agree on much, they can at least agree on this: a nation should never invade another sovereign nation. Period. Fin. Tie it with a bow.
It’s a fine principle and one we’d come to take for granted. Still, it wasn’t enough to save the rest of the hour-long king’s speech. Biden’s presidency is broken, yes, but so is the format of the ritual he partook in. And given that some members of Congress are probably still standing in the House chamber applauding, I doubt it’s going to be fixed anytime soon.
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This article first appears in the Spectator’s World edition.