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It's Time to Abolish the State of the Union Address

The speech was once useful for setting legislative agendas, but the digital age has made it a mostly useless spectacle.
President Trump will deliver the State of the Union address tonight. 

President Trump will deliver the State of the Union address tonight. 

The State of the Union is old, mostly useless these days, and worth doing away with.

The annual address to Congress is a bizarre artifact of modern American politics. The Constitution mandates that the president "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union," but does not require those remarks be delivered orally. While George Washington and John Adams delivered their message to the legislative branch, the address disappeared during Thomas Jefferson's tenure, and did not return until Woodrow Wilson revived the practice in 1913. Jefferson had opposed an in-person delivery due to its rhetorical resemblance to the monarchical "speech from the throne" that opened the British Parliament; Wilson, however, believed that it was "the dignified and natural thing to deliver his own message instead of sending the document by messenger from the White House," as a 1913 Baltimore Sun editorial described it.

Jefferson's concerns weren't totally accurate; rather than being a speech from the throne, the State of the Union delivered before Congress would become a bully pulpit address from a sitting president—an opportunity to scold the legislative branch in its own house.

The evolution of mass media reshaped the practice entirely: When Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge broadcast their remarks to radios across the country in the 1920s, and Harry Truman first embraced the vast wasteland of television in the '50s, the State of the Union address went "from mere constitutional busy work" to "a free campaign commercial for the sitting president and a shorter one for the opposition party," as Thomas Knapp, the director of the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism, put it recently in the Miami Herald.

One byproduct of this shift is that the State of the Union is no longer an effective means for a president to use his or her bully pulpit, and has become a carnival of political jousting.

There are a number of reasons the address is no longer an effective format for pushing a legislative agenda.

First, the core problem: Americans are no longer tuning in to the televised State of the Union address the way they once were. Data from Nielsen and Variety analyzed by Statista indicates that viewership declined from 66.9 million viewers in 1993 to 47.74 million viewers in 2017—and those peaks weren't even constitutionally mandated State of the Union addresses, but rather joint sessions of Congress following presidents' respective inaugurations. (Statista notes, however, that, adjusting for the overall decline in live TV viewership in recent years, viewership did spike for Barack Obama and Donald Trump compared to their predecessors):

Second, the agenda-setting influence of the State of the Union on its own has waned considerably over time. While research indicates that the State of the Union address itself does have an outsize influence on public-policy discussions, that influence is largely a function of reshaping media attention on a certain subset of policies. This reshaping of attention, in turn, has been limited by the aforementioned decline in interest from the general public. "Since fewer among the public tune in to watch presidential addresses," as Jeffrey Peake and Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha put it in a 2008 examination in Political Communication, "the media may see the addresses as less newsworthy, perhaps leading to a negligible impact of the president's address on subsequent press coverage of issues related to the address."

And third, no longer limited to the radio and television as the key organs of his bully pulpit, Trump makes national news every morning by sending tweets. He allows the national media ecosystem—particularly digital and cable outlets that are forced to shovel constant piles of content to feed consumers' fickle attention spans—to read into his thinking while he enjoys "executive time" in the Oval Office. Trump knows how to exploit the delicate incentive structure of our modern media ecosystem to dominate every conversation on every screen, all the time.

The Trump campaign raked in nearly $2 billion in free media during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to a New York Times analysis, while spending far less than both his Republican and Democratic competitors. The State of the Union is no longer the sitting president's only vehicle for setting his agenda in the minds of the American public.

The nature of Trump's modern bully pulpit makes the State of the Union extraneous, a vestige of previous American regimes. But this is not simply a product of Trump alone, but rather a result of the changing nature of American governance at large.

In his 2005 book America's Three Regimes: A New Political History, the historian (and my late grandfather) Morton Keller described the institutional history of American governance as three "regimes," clusters of administrative and bureaucratic organs that articulate how the government and the governed relate to each other. Shortly before his death, I wrote that my grandfather likely would have identified the age of Trumpism as a fourth regime:

Call it the "multitude-megalomaniac" regime: Rather than seeing an expansion in the traditional institutional and administrative channels of American governance to afford more political power to citizens, the rise of digital connectivity and social media more broadly has provided an ecosystem in which the institutions of government are no longer the only channels by which to exercise political power.

This is, without a doubt, the nature of politics today, where so much of most political news coverage in a given day is centered on the social implications of elected officials' tweets. And again, Trump rules not by legal decree, but a parallel system of political pressure unleashed in a single tweet.

If the State of the Union address has political power largely because of the way it's refracted through the broader media ecosystem, then Trump delivers a State of the Union address every day before breakfast.

Indeed, why bother giving the address at all? Trump could very easily submit a written report to Congress and tweet it at the same time to gain the same effect. In an era in which lawmakers actually fear that a single tweet from the sitting president can unleash a maelstrom of populist fury, Trump's digital broadsides are a far more effective "speech from the throne" than droll remarks during primetime could ever be.

The State of the Union has been an artificial political circus for decades. And Trump didn't kill it—he just exposed it for what it was.


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