Opinion | Bruce Butler: The State of the union at 246 years old

In between this column and my next column, Colorado will have held primary elections and the United States will have celebrated its 246th birthday. The U.S. Constitution in Article II, Section 3 requires “(The president) 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.” 

For many years this constitutional requirement was fulfilled by sending a letter to Congress. In more recent history, the State of the Union address has become a nationally televised joint session of Congress that typically occurs in late January. The State of the Union is the sole annual opportunity for the three branches of the federal government to assemble in one room and listen to the president declare, “The State of the Union is strong.”

I understand why the State of the Union address is typically given at the beginning of each year, but I think it might be more appropriate for the president to present the State of the Union address around Independence Day, as birthdays can often be a time of reflection. Over the course of our nation’s 246 years, the country has endured the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, two world wars, nation-building wars, the Cold War, the Great Depression, civil rights tension, slavery and prohibition. We tend to think the challenges of our times far exceed anything that has happened in past generations. At the core, our nation’s Constitution, institutions and economy are amazingly resilient, which is a credit to our visionary founders.

Of course, it would be politically suicidal for a president to declare the State of the Union anything less than strong, but I do worry that the state of our nation is precariously fragile as it turns 246 years old. Sure, there have been vehement political differences over the course of my lifetime regarding the Vietnam War, school busing, Great Society programs, urban crime, Watergate and executive privilege, and Roe v. Wade. 

The difference now, like no time since the Civil War, is that ideological, cultural and political disagreements are being used proxies to attack the sovereignty of our nation itself.

There are organized efforts to tear down our nation’s Constitution, its governmental and cultural institutions, to undermine market economics, which has historically been a great source of individual liberty and freedom, and most troublingly to divide people once again over immutable characteristics, like race and gender. Even within our government, we have co-equal branches covertly, or some might say overtly, threatening revenge and structural degradation of the other over personally unfavorable outcomes. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Disagreeing with election results is no excuse for raiding the U.S. Capitol. Disagreeing with Supreme Court justices is no excuse for mob intimidation and threats of violence and against them and their family members. Not having enough partisan votes in the U.S. Senate is no excuse for eviscerating procedural rules to solidify power and ensure a desired outcome. That is what dictators do, and that is precisely what the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are intended to prevent.

Those who have followed my columns know I am an outspoken advocate for local government and for concentrating civic decisions at local levels, primarily because local officials must live, work, recreate and shop with the friends and neighbors they are governing. The larger the government, the more nameless and faceless the people being governed become.

One long-term positive that could come out of the recent Supreme Court session, regardless of how you feel about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, is that it should refocus voter attention on state legislative races. These races are often characterized by voter apathy, but they have real impacts. For those who have not yet voted, remember Tuesday is Election Day for the Democratic and Republican primaries. If you are registered as an unaffiliated voter, you should have received both party ballots. Remember to vote only one ballot, not both.

As our country turns 246 years old next Monday, let’s focus on what unites us as a nation, respect personal differences of opinion, and be grateful we live in such a beautiful place.

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