One of the things conservatives are tasked with as a collective is deciding what it is we want to conserve in American culture. There are traditions that are worth keeping and others that are not; the responsibility of conservatism is identifying those things and describing why they matter.
As the great, recently departed philosopher Roger Scruton put it: “For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom.”
This past week has brought to the surface two American traditions that I believe no longer show much reason for defense or conserving, for they no longer contain a single lick of anything smacking of wisdom or preciousness.
I’m referring to the Iowa presidential caucuses and the annual State of the Union address.
To be frank, I am a fan of the caucus system. I like it when political parties hold meetings to decide who will represent them in an election. Political parties are private organizations, after all, and they’ve lost something of their meaning if primary voting is just another form of voting in a general election.
But what happened in the Iowa Democratic caucuses was an embarrassment on par with some of the worst voting fiascos we’ve witnessed in recent history. People joked about the 2000 Florida recount, but at least there were legitimate legal questions in that razor-close race. The Iowa debacle featured a failure of technology, process, and integrity.
The company that built the app that was to be used to report caucus results connected itself with the far-left progressive wing of the party. Bernie Sanders supporters made a big point of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign paying for services from the very company that was counting votes.
Joe Biden and former candidate Kirsten Gillibrand also paid for assistance from the company. And while there’s no direct evidence of untoward behavior, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to tell you that candidates and advocacy groups shouldn’t have their money intermingling when it comes to determining a victor.
Still, Nevada Democrats seem to be falling into the same hole. They put out job listings for a “Voter Protection Director,” and it appears they may have hired a former Buttigieg staffer for the position.
Whatever happens in those caucuses, it seems that the caucus tradition is on life support. And if Democrats are going to pursue shady tactics, it’s going to be much harder to defend this process.
In the same boat is the State of the Union address, given by the president each year. Peggy Noonan, writing about how Democrats seem oblivious to the awful week they’ve had, noted of the State of the Union speech: “Yes it was bread and circuses, and yes it was like a reality TV show,” but “if you weren’t moved by the mother of the baby born prematurely and the 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman there’s something wrong with you.”
Comparing the behavior of Democrats and Republicans during the speech, she also pointed out: “Remember those videos that used to be all over the internet, with members of the Korean congress punching each other in the face on the floor of the legislature? Man, we used to laugh. Now in the future that can be us.”
She has a point. Our elected officials shouldn’t spend time in a historic and august chamber mocking each other and the history they inhabit.
If the State of the Union is going to become nothing more than a political rally for both parties, then there’s little reason to foist it on the American public or Congress. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution only requires the president to update Congress:
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.
Moreover, the televised State of the Union address before Congress is a recent tradition; the practice started with Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965.
If the president wants to deliver a televised speech, he can do so from the Oval Office and provide a written version of it to Congress. For most of the early years of the presidency, that is precisely what happened: the president would deliver a written update to Congress — no speeches.
Now, both parties have gotten so caught up in projecting power, with the opposition polishing up some new politician to respond to the president each and every year, that the State of the Union occasion has lost any special meaning or power.
A common refrain from commentators is that we live in a time of weak institutions and parties, and that does seem partly right. But it’s also a time of weak traditions.
Traditions are supposed to point us to some higher truth or wisdom in our past — to remind us of who we are, where we’ve been, and lessons to guide us into the future. What good are they if they aren’t serving that purpose?
To borrow a line from Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
While that motto wasn’t followed in Star Wars — J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson fought over whether to embrace tradition or toss it over a cliff — we should follow that advice here. We should establish new traditions that better reflect the ancient wisdom of our past and connect it with the future.
Keeping tradition for the sake of tradition is no argument at all, especially when that tradition is being used to denigrate the Republic.
Take Scruton’s famous line on tradition: “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” I’d agree. But I’d also ask: what is good about these caucuses and the trend lines of the State of the Union?
Building something new is hard, but maybe it’s time to try it.