I don’t always see eye to eye with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, but I’ve never doubted his sincerity. Last week, he floated a simple but potentially revolutionary idea to change the partisan tenor of the annual State of the Union address. Rather than have Republicans and Democrats separated by party affiliation, Udall suggested, why not mix things up and let political adversaries sit next to one another?
Senator Udall, that’s a terrific idea.
We’ve all grown tired of — even embarrassed by — partisan displays during the State of the Union speech. Every 30 seconds, half of the room giddily jumps to its feet while the other half sits in wooden silence, looking for all the world like crusty grumps. Then, when the president’s party affiliation changes, the grumps rise to cheer and the fist-pumpers take their seats. It’s the same spectacle, year in and year out.
Not only is this display not edifying, it reinforces partisan divisions in our country. For millions of Americans, the State of the Union becomes an event either to cheer or jeer, as Republicans and Democrats take cues from those in the chamber. Rather than engage in the kind of meaningful dialogue our founders envisioned, our leaders have reduced this constitutional moment (See Article 2, Section 3) to something resembling a professional wrestling match.
Udall’s proposal would make partisan displays significantly more difficult, if not totally impractical. It’s one thing to act in an over-the-top manner when everyone around you is doing so, but when the person to your right and left are more subdued, perhaps you’ll think twice.
But Udall is onto something more fundamental, something that goes to the very nature of political dialogue. A legislative chamber is, after all, simply a workplace, just like an office or a shop or a restaurant. As in any other workplace, legislators tend to form friendships with those who work in closest proximity to them. The reason is obvious.
The inevitable down time that happens in any job is filled with small talk, conversations about family, discussion about current events. Often those conversations reveal common ground between people, which in turn becomes friendship.
How many opportunities for bipartisan friendship are lost simply because the traditions of legislative chambers require physical separation of Republicans and Democrats? The Colorado state House and Senate, for example, are bisected by an aisle that effectively divides the parties. So, more frequently than not, “down-time” conversations occur between people who share the same political party, and the same principles. How much stronger would those principles be if they were tested in the crucible of conversation, a vigorous back-and-forth with an equally principled person who sees the world in a totally different way? And how much more difficult would it be for people to demonize political opponents if those people happened to be personal friends?
I’m on board with Udall’s proposal. It should have happened a long time ago. And while we’re talking about it, it ought to happen at the state Capitol, too.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”