The longstanding State of the Union tradition is under threat from political polarity in 2023. Why?

Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash.

“The choice is between normal and crazy.”

It was one of the most memorable lines gleaned from the 2023 State of the Union Address.

The words, spoken not by President Joe Biden but by Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who was chosen to deliver the Republican rebuttal — provoked head nods from both sides of the political spectrum and everywhere in between.

It was probably the only time during the whole night’s events when conservative right, progressive left, and moderate center agreed wholeheartedly about anything.

Of course, which side is the normal one, and which the crazy, is a matter of great debate. The answer largely depends on who is viewing the issue from which side of the widening ideological abyss dividing American politics in 2023.

Moderates, independents, libertarians, greenies, and others without a true home in today’s bifurcated political laity agree even more wholeheartedly: They think both sides are crazy.

Like their more moderate counterparts, progressive Democrats are certain the Republican Party has gone completely off the deep end into Donald Trump land never to return. Unlike their middle-road-dwelling contemporaries, however, they see nothing amiss in today’s Democratic Party platform.

In the view of these laudables, the Republican Party has lost itself in a frenzy of nationalism, protectionism, Trumpism, white supremacy, anarchy, bigotry, and dangerous election denialism. The Democratic Party is the only “normal” choice and though they probably don’t agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders about anything else, progressive Democrats agree the other choice is “crazy.”

Conservative Republicans, for their part, wholeheartedly agree with Sanders, too.

Democrats, they argue, have fallen into a TikTok fever dream of transgenderism, critical race theory, woke politics, and dangerous election denialism. Today’s progressives, in the view of conservative Republicans like Sanders, are intent on converting every vestige of public life into Mao’s Cultural Revolution, including through a host of increasingly “woke” corporate conglomerates with unlimited advertising budgets, very little oversight, and accountability only to some amorphous and abstract preconception of “stakeholders.”

During his State of the Union Speech, President Joe Biden took scant shots at “crazy” conservative Republicans.

“Two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War,” Biden said. “Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”

Biden lamented the times when, “Democrats had to go it alone,” and called for greater unity even as he lambasted the Republicans who failed to support his, “once-in-a-generation infrastructure law.”

“These projects will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports and airports, clean water, and high-speed internet across America,” Biden said.

“And we’re just getting started,” Biden went on. “I sincerely thank my Republican friends who voted for the law.”

“And to my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry,” Biden added. “I promised to be the president for all Americans.”

“We’ll fund your projects,” Biden said, slyly. “And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”

“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I agree to their economic plans,” Biden needled later in his speech, drawing boos from Republicans. “All of you at home should know what their plans are.”

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years,” Biden tried, without much success. As shouts of “no” emanated from Congressional Republicans, Biden immediately backtracked adding, “not a majority of Republicans,” but, “it’s being proposed by some of you.”

Biden was then supposed to say: “That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away. Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they’ll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history. I won’t let that happen.”

Instead, Mr. Biden went off-script: “Look, folks, the idea is that we’re not going to be — we’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond. So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now, right? All right. We got unanimity.”

The subsequent section of Biden’s speech, “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them. And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them,” was undermined by his own assessment, “which apparently no one wants to do.”

For the most part, Biden avoided or quickly skimmed over the more controversial recent flashpoints in the culture war.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not reciprocate.

“Forgive me for not believing much of anything I heard tonight from President Biden,” Sanders countered. “From out-of-control inflation and violent crime to the dangerous border crisis and threat from China, Biden and the Democrats have failed you.”

“I’ll be the first to admit, President Biden and I don’t have a lot in common,” Sanders said later. “I’m for freedom, he’s for government control. At 40, I’m the youngest governor in the country. At 80, he’s the oldest president in American history.”

“I’m the first woman to lead my state,” said Sanders. “He’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”

“In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country,” Sanders lamented. “Whether Joe Biden believes this madness or is simply too weak to resist it, his administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left.”

Beset by a Biden administration that, “seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” Sanders argued, “most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

“Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols, all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your Freedom of Speech,” Sanders bemoaned.

“That’s not normal,” she said. “It’s crazy, and it’s wrong.”

Of the two visions of America presented during the 2023 State of the Union Address and its rebuttal, which was the more accurate?

Is this a bipartisan nation on the mend from Covid-19, working out our differences in the fastest-growing economy in history with nothing but blue skies as far as the eye can see — or at least as long as the Republican menace is kept at bay?

Or are we living through the last gasp of a culture in the grips of a fluctuating but overestimated Overton Window, in which the radical left has systematically hijacked major aspects of American culture from media to Big Tech?

One factor can’t be overlooked in the debate: The media itself.

Biden is Trump,” wrote Ed Kilgore in a shocking headline for the New Yorker this week, before adding the caveat, “(When it Comes to Popularity)

Though Kilgore isn’t the first political columnist to notice that plenty of Republicans have come to loathe Joe Biden every bit as much as Democrats hated Donald Trump, Kilgore is perhaps the most prominent voice in the left-leaning legacy media to say so publicly.

When it comes to approval ratings, as Kilgore points out, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are practically neck-and-neck. One caveat the New Yorker fails to mention, however — or perhaps even notice — is that these approval ratings haven’t emerged from a vacuum.

The mainstream press, which has a lower approval rating than both unpopular presidents and lower trustworthiness scores, is like the kid in class who took attendance and forgot to count himself.

Trump’s approval ratings are his approval ratings despite unrelentingly negative media coverage that has at times — as we now know from the Twitter Files — gone beyond negative into potentially libelous.

President Joe Biden, in contrast, has enjoyed very favorable treatment from the mainstream press. Relatively little has been said about Biden’s lack of transparency on a variety of issues, his avoidance of the press, even his well-established reputation as a fabulist.

Though some media outlets are arguing Biden needs more cheerleaders in the press heading into 2024, the fact that media outlets and tech companies acted in advance of the 2020 election to protect Joe Biden from stories that might have damaged his candidacy has become almost impossible to ignore.

Would public perceptions of these two presidents be different had media coverage of their respective candidacies, scandals, and administrations been more measured?

If political polarity in America, colored by salacious press coverage and the relentless click-bait to which we are daily subjected, is a litmus test for legacy media outlets, it is a test they are failing miserably.

Perhaps neither party is as crazy as many fear. Perhaps the real culprit is the middleman — a self-interested messenger always punching up the message for maximum viral click-ability.

In this case, the State of the Union might not be as bad as we fear.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)