WASHINGTON, United States — A continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.
Americans turning on their televisions on Tuesday night hoping to watch the country’s most beloved telenovela – the inexplicably popular tale of a ragtag team of naval detectives – are in for a disappointment. The nation’s leader will be addressing his citizens, and all the country’s major broadcasters, both public and private, are obliged to carry the speech live.
It is called the State of the Union. A tradition nominally rooted in an ambiguously worded phrase in the country’s constitution, it has evolved into a multimedia extravaganza that dominates the county’s political conversation. Nevertheless, despite the pomp and prime-time billing, most Americans admit they can scarcely remember its message just a few days later.
The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and before an audience comprising members of that body, as well as senior leaders of the military and judiciary, give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances – the state of the union is invariably described as “strong” – and laying out the regime’s priorities for the new year.
Unlike in many Western democracies, in which national leaders interact directly with the legislature, sometimes even answering questions, members of Congress may signal their disapproval by remaining in their seats sitting quietly. Support for popular policies (or political allies) is expressed with applause. Last year, for instance, regime loyalists interrupted Obama’s speech 74 times with rapturous displays of approval for their leader. Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.
The leader frequently uses the speech to single out ordinary citizens whose actions have made them heroes to the motherland. These lucky few are typically seated with the country’s first lady and asked to stand before their nation for a brief televised moment. The president will also occasionally take advantage of his elevated platform to publicly shame those officials who have displeased him in the previous year.
Every facet of the event, from the president’s long walk to the podium through the crowded gallery of well-wishers to the facial expressions of the nation’s voluble and eccentric vice president, will be carefully dissected by analysts on both regime- and opposition-aligned broadcasters. The leader’s speech regularly provokes arguments among the armchair analysts on the nation’s most popular microblogging sites.
In recent years, the opposition party has been granted the right to give a televised address of its own. However, the halfhearted efforts put forward by the country’s disorganized and splintered opposition have generally only served the regime’s interests. This year, after a series of bizarre and insulting comments about women made by extremists associated with the opposition, the job falls to a little-known congresswoman from one of the northwest frontier provinces.
This year, the president is expected to promise a “year of action,” in contrast with what was widely seen as a year of frustration and inertia for his government. Opponents, however, decry what they see as authoritarian efforts to bypass the legislature entirely. Meanwhile, the country’s hyperactive political media seems to be shifting its attention to the likely contestants of the next election, despite the fact that the current leader still has three years left in office.
In all, many observers see the State of the Union as a sign of the growing disconnect between the nation’s political elite and ordinary citizens. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage the speech receives, viewership of the State of the Union has been steadily declining. Judging by the Americans your correspondent meets in hotels, restaurants and rental-car agencies, the nation’s citizens seem more eager to view an upcoming football match – not to mention those endlessly entertaining navy detectives.
Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.