Bush's farewell State of the Union

As George W Bush delivers his last State of the Union address we look at how this American instituti

This week, President George W. Bush will honour for the final time Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

The occasion is now a ritual of formal ceremony and high national symbolism. The Senate marches together through the Capitol to the House of Representatives. The President is announced and then, to standing ovation, passes through the throng to take his place in front of a large stars-and-stripes. Before him the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs and the Supreme Court are seated, while television cameras capture the display for the nation.

His speech will be delivered, punctuated by bursts of formal applause. Such ritual expresses the unity and co-operation of America’s branches of government, while reinforcing the authority of the presidency.

The effectiveness of the ceremony depends on a sense of tradition, and with its constitutional roots, the State of the Union address can evoke the longevity and continuity of American democracy. Like many traditions, however, it has been subject to evolution and its fluid history can reveal something of the changing modes of American government.

Suitably, the first such address was delivered by George Washington in 1790, at a merciful 833 words. The practice did not survive America’s third president.

Thomas Jefferson decided to submit written messages to Congress, feeling that a personal appearance would be too monarchial and too adversarial – “I have prevented the bloody conflict which the making an answer would have committed them. They consequently were able to be sent into real business at once.” Though the decision may have stemmed partly from Jefferson’s discomfort with public speaking, the precedent lasted the century.

Until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, yearly presidential messages would be dispatched to Congress and published in journals nationwide. Wilson, the former college professor, saw fit to address a joint session of Congress, enacting his ideal of a dynamic, personal presidency. Since then, most presidents have followed his example.

The last to submit a written message was Carter, whose efforts to humble the imperial presidency had seen him walk his inauguration route and wear cardigans in the Oval Office. The twentieth century saw further efforts to expand the president’s audience. Coolidge was the first to have his address broadcast by radio, a practice continued to great effect by Franklin Roosevelt.

Lyndon Johnson went further in 1965, rescheduling the speech from midday to the evening, in order to catch the primetime television audience. As well as speaking to the American people, Ronald Reagan sought to include them, inviting and honouring individuals whose actions that year could represent his heroic America. This practice has continued - in recent years the House gallery has been a showcase for the bereaved and valiant of Iraq.

It is by no means all symbol and theatre. The Monroe Doctrine and Lincoln’s desire for emancipation were first expressed in State of the Union addresses. Wilson delivered his to emphasise his plans for economic reform, while Franklin Roosevelt and Johnson used theirs as a pulpit to articulate the New Deal and the Great Society respectively. In recent decades the speech has become a collective effort of the administration, a conglomerate of departmental programmes from which the speechwriters must extract a theme. However, the commanding ceremony allows a President to adorn his agenda (and his achievements) with all the symbolic weight of his office.

This is Mr Bush’s last opportunity to demand such attention and to define his presidency.

Roger Johnson is an Associate Tutor in American Studies at the University of Sussex. He studied at the Institute of the Americas in London and is pursuing a doctorate on cultural memory and the Reagan administration.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times