Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The con­ser­v­ative com­men­tariat flew into a rage when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced she would not attend Pres­ident Trump’s first annual State of the Union address.

Perhaps con­ser­v­a­tives should be more sym­pa­thetic to Ginsburg’s decision — perhaps the pres­ident should follow her lead and refuse to show up to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives next year.

Article III of the U.S. Con­sti­tution requires the Pres­ident to “give to Con­gress infor­mation of the State of the Union and rec­ommend to their Con­sid­er­ation such mea­sures as he shall judge nec­essary and expe­dient.” But, this message to Con­gress was not always delivered in person.

In 1801, Thomas Jef­ferson sent his first annual address to Con­gress via mes­senger in writing. He explained that “In doing this, I have had prin­cipal regard to the con­ve­nience of the leg­is­lature, to the economy of their time, to their relief from the embar­rassment of imme­diate answers on sub­jects not yet fully before them, and to the ben­efits thence resulting to the public affairs.”

For Jef­ferson and other Founders, an annual speech before Con­gress made the Pres­ident seem more akin to the opulent mon­archs of Europe than the limited role they envi­sioned for him. Con­gress, not the pres­i­dency, was the closest branch of gov­ernment to the people because it rep­re­sented them.

Around the turn of the 20th century, though, that view started to change. Pro­gres­sives of the day saw the pres­i­dency as the country’s most rep­re­sen­tative office in the gov­ernment because they believed pres­i­dential elec­tions were the most direct form of demo­c­ratic action.

In the hands of pro­gres­sives like Woodrow Wilson, the State of the Union address was turned into a tool for the pres­ident to set a leg­islative agenda for the fol­lowing year. Con­gress was no longer the branch of gov­ernment car­rying out the people’s will — instead, pro­gres­sives looked to the pres­ident, ele­vated above the people’s house and giving orders to the people’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

From the attention-seeking politi­cians crowding the aisles to get a few seconds on televsion to the plat­i­tudinous pan­dering that char­ac­terizes the speech almost every year, the annual State of the Union address has come to embody every­thing that is wrong with con­tem­porary American pol­itics — every­thing Thomas Jef­ferson wanted to avoid in 1801.

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said it best in 2013 when he explained why he refused to attend: “[The State of the Union] has turned into a childish spec­tacle, and I don’t think that I want to be there to lend dignity to it.”

In his inau­gural address, Pres­ident Trump said that his admin­is­tration would be ded­i­cated to “trans­ferring power from Wash­ington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” Returning the State of the Union to the form it took when Jef­ferson and Lincoln ran the exec­utive would be an enormous sym­bolic gesture toward accom­plishing just that.

Besides, what could be more clas­si­cally Trumpian? A large part of the spec­tac­u­larness Scalia com­plained about comes from the breathless attention the media devotes to the speech every year. Endless tele­vised panels ana­lyzing the speech, countless over-hyped “responses” to the speech by C‑List politi­cians, not to mention the thoughtless live-tweeting during the speech — it’s enough to drive the informed citizen mad.

If Trump chose to deliver his next State of the Union in writing, the main­stream media would go bal­listic. He would ruin hours of their canned pro­gramming and force them to focus on the sub­stance of his message rather than the style. Not to mention, dis­rupting a custom so entrenched as the State of the Union address would dom­inate head­lines for weeks.

Our republic deserves better than the modern cult of the pres­i­dency. We don’t need cli­mactic political theater to keep the economy running smoothly or the mil­itary pro­tecting us from danger. The pres­ident should do what he can to bring the state of pol­itics to some­thing more like the Founders’ original intent — and he can start by being con­spic­u­ously absent at next year’s State of the Union address.


Michael Luc­chese is a senior majoring in American studies.