This being the era of New Civility, some Republicans have agreed to intermingle with the Democrats during the State of the Union Address. While there is some support for this move, there is also some significant opposition.
It is, of course, tempting to dismiss this as mere empty political theater. After all, for a Democrat to sit beside a Republican does nothing of real substance. However, I think that this gesture is worthwhile.
First, symbolism and gestures are an important part of civility. It is, one might argue, the little niceties that go far in establishing at least the tone of civility. As such, this sort of gesture is well worth doing, of only as symbolic step towards more civility and unity.
Second, progress towards cooperation and civility begin with small things. As the hackneyed saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If the Democrats and Republicans can stand sitting next to each other for the duration of the speech, perhaps they will be slightly more willing to take more significant steps (such as working together for the general good).
Of course, there is some opposition to this proposal.
As noted above, it is tempting to dismiss this as a mere empty gesture and hence not worth doing. However, as noted above, the gestures seem important. For example, shaking someone’s hand is a small thing, but to refuse to do so is a mark of incivility and sets a negative tone.
A more serious reason is that, as congressman Broun has asserted, this seating plan is a trap. Broun presents an interesting blend of talking point reasons:
First, he claims that the Democrats do not want civility-they want to silence the Republicans. In light of the recent Nazi comparison from the Democrats, this does have more appeal. However, I suspect that the Democrats and Republicans do want some civility-at least until the Giffords story goes to the back burner of the 24 hour news cycle. Also, as far as the Democrats silencing the Republicans, the chances of this are on par with the chances that Sarah Palin will stay out of the media spotlight.
Second, he claims that part of the purpose of the trap is hide the true number of Democrats in the House. If the Democrats and Republicans are mixed together, then people who are apparently unaware of the election results or who do not understand how numbers work will not realize that the Republicans now have a majority.
Third, he is worried that ”when Barack Obama spews out all his venom, then, if they’re scattered throughout all the Republicans, then it won’t be as noticeable as if we’re sitting apart.” However, he should be glad that the parties are mixed-that way Obama might not be able to spew on all the Republicans at once or might be less inclined to spew and hit his fellow Democrats. More seriously, he does have a reasonable point that the diffusion will dilute how the responses appear on TV: rather than a camera panning over a block of cheering Democrats or a pan of scowling Republicans, it will pan over a mix of scowls and smiles.
As I see it, the mixing seems like a good idea. The State of the Union should be a time when Americans can pull together as Americans. Of course, this requires that the President refrain from partisan shots and that he endeavors to speak of America as a whole.