I had not planned on writing anything about the State of the Union speech, either before or after, because all of the takes have been taken. But I realized I could take two takes and take them to another level.
For example, as Jay Cost and others have remarked on many occasions, the modern SOTU represents an inversion of its original Constitutional function and started becoming a hallmark of the imperial presidency under Wilson during the Progressive Era. As many others have observed, the modern SOTU is now essentially a TV special starring the president, with members of Congress playing their supporting roles and with various guest stars.
But I now am considering these conventional points in light of this recent interview with Yuval Levin on the Federalist Radio Hour. During the first segment of the interview, Levin and Ben Domenech discuss our dysfunctional Congress.
Levin argues that much of this dysfunction can be attributed to various “reforms” over the years that pointed in the direction of the legislature trying to act more like the executive — e.g., the consolidation of committees, the creation of and reliance upon agencies like CBO, etc. He also suggests that Congress has overdone transparency to the point where members spend more time performing for and negotiating in the media than engaging in the proverbial sausage-making of legislation.
And Levin observes that a similar phenomenon has been occurring in other institutions, including the media and academia, transforming them from formative molds that help give shape to certain aspects of our associational lives into platforms for individuals to perform upon. He believes that this transformation is part of what drives our loss of faith in these institutions.
In some cases, these dynamics seem linked; the more the legislature cedes power to the president, and the more legislative power is delegated to the leadership, the easier it becomes to spend time performing. In other cases, the dynamic may be different; in academia, there is a ceding of power by officers to both bureaucracy and to students, but there is probably more at work there as well.
These points came to mind more readily after yesterday’s posting about Katherine Miller’s recent essay associating the decline of institutions with the inability of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. to serve the traditional roles fulfilled by institutions. It may be that or declining institutions are being replaced with platforms which provide spaces where everyone performs, but which do not — and perhaps cannot — serve the formative roles Levin mentions.
Also, one of the points I made yesterday is that there is “little public discussion of the ways in which the information revolution was and is radically reshaping our society and its institutions as surely as the industrial revolution did,” relative to the importance of the revolution.
Here, I would note that the technological and societal changes that created the institutions of the 20th century, overlapping with the Progressive Era, tended to focus on the themes of centralization, continuity and conformity, e.g., the assembly line, central economic planning, unionized labor and long-term employment, public schools, etc. The technological and societal changes being wrought by the information revolution tend in the opposite direction (something Walter Russell Mead has been examining for years).
Whatever else it may be, the State of the Union Show is an exhibit of all these phenomena. It is simultaneously a relic and a window on our decline into a performance society. And this is probably why people have become increasingly scornful of it.
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