This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on February 8, 2018.
This is what State of the Union speeches used to be.
On a bright January morning in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from its Cape Canaveral launch pad and broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean. The nation was shocked, and deeply shaken. President Reagan postponed his scheduled State of the Union address by several days. When he did address Congress and the country, his words were comforting.
“Thank you for allowing me to delay my address until this evening,” he said. “We paused together to mourn and honor the valor of our seven Challenger heroes. And I hope that we are now ready to do what they would want us to do: Go forward, America, and reach for the stars.”
I remember that speech, and I remember how it helped to heal the country. Though the nation was politically divided, Americans of all stripes watched and took solace from the speech.
That’s how it has been for generations. From Abraham Lincoln’s call for abolition of slavery in 1862 to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty speech in 1964, State of the Union addresses have articulated a vision for America. Americans came together to read, then listen to, and finally to watch these important speeches.
But something has changed. And it’s deeply troubling.
A few days ago, President Trump also articulated a vision of a strong, resilient America.
“We endured floods and fires and storms,” he said. “But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America's soul, and the steel in America's spine.”
Yet the reaction to Trump’s speech — even as it was being delivered — was mercilessly partisan. Many Democratic members of Congress paid more attention to their cell phones than to the president. They stoically refused to applaud for things like veterans, low unemployment and military gains against ISIS.
Their response was emblematic of the decline of decorum and civility in our nation. In many quarters, we have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse and reasoned, respectful debate.
The irony here is that the vision Trump laid out is one that will benefit all Americans. It’s a vision of peace, prosperity and freedom.
But the problem isn’t merely the hyper-partisanship on display during the speech. It’s also what has resulted from that hyper-partisanship — more and more Americans feel disaffected. They’ve tuned out the politicians. They’ve given up; they’ve changed the channel.
I can’t blame them. When you have fact-checkers fact checking rival fact-checkers, when political pundits seem to live in two very different countries, when there’s so much anger and acrimony, it’s just easier to ignore the world of politics.
But something is lost. Had those disaffected Americans watched Trump’s speech, they would have found themselves in agreement with much of what was said. Trump’s vision is bold; Americans like that. His vision is compassionate. Americans like that, too. Most of all, Trump’s vision is unifying. And all Americans need that.
In fact, it’s those disaffected Americans who are the key to a renewal of civility. The partisans play their parts; they stake out their territory on the left and the right and refuse to yield ground. But the disaffected – the normal, everyday Americans who are more concerned about getting to band practice on time than they are about bills before Congress — can be a bridge. They can push the partisans toward a more practical approach of problem-solving, if they’ll only re-engage.
But re-engagement will take sacrifice. Once upon a time, Americans were taught to think of our nation as a noble experiment, something worth preserving. Indeed, in Lincoln’s State of the Union address of 1862, he summed up the stakes of an even bigger conflict: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”
That’s why we need a renewed focus on civics education. Let’s teach our students — and remind ourselves — of the unique and powerful premise of our nation: That all of us are created equal, and that all of us deserve to be free.
But the politicians bear some responsibility, too. I want to cite one more portion of Reagan’s State of the Union of 1986. He took the time to note that it was the tenth and last address presided over by his great political opponent — and personal friend — House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
“On behalf of the American people, I want to salute you for your service to Congress and country,” he said. “Here's to you, Tip.”
That’s what State of the Union speeches once were — and can be again.