Why Democrats and Republicans Shouldn’t Sit Together at the State of the Union

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On the far left, a bunch of Republican senators are clearly not digging what Obama just said. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Why do we watch the State of the Union address? Is it to hear our president say patriotic, optimistic clichés about our country, or explain his agenda for the upcoming year? Certainly not. It is to marvel at the amusing spectacle of clapping and standing performed by our elected representatives. Nothing is more fascinating than seeing the Democratic side of the chamber rise and applaud with gusto to something President Obama has said while Republicans either politely clap in their seats or fail to react at all. Or catching the Democrats squirm at the mention of, say, entitlement reform or the war in Afghanistan. But Mark Udall, a Democratic senator from Colorado, wants to put an end to all that:

Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall released a letter Wednesday proposing that members of both political parties sit next to each other at this year's State of the Union address instead of the normal seating which is divided along party lines.

"As the nation watches, Democrats and Republicans should reflect the interspersed character of America itself," Udall wrote. "Perhaps, by sitting with each other for one night, we will begin to rekindle that common spark that brought us here from 50 different states and widely diverging backgrounds to serve the public good."

In the letter Udall plans to send to Congressional leadership, he said the "debate surrounding our politics has grown ever more corrosive," and suggested choreographed standing and clapping is unbecoming of Congress, especially given the recent Arizona shooting.

Unity is great, sure, but apart from the entertainment value, there is an important practical reason to maintain the State of the Union's partisan seating arrangement. A neat separation of the parties allows the American people to see, in real time, their positions on the president's agenda and the issues of the day. It's actually very informative and helpful to be able to easily assess which proposals the Republicans and Democrats support, respectively, through the decision to applaud. It also allows us to identify the few party-bucking independent thinkers who, every so often, stand up to clap while the rest of their colleagues remain seated.

Thrown together in one big bipartisan hodgepodge, congressmen and senators would still carefully regulate their applause, but that brief chamber reaction shot on TV becomes nearly impossible to decipher. The country could certainly benefit from more symbolic demonstrations of solidarity, but the State of the Union address is one instance where a stark partisan divide is actually good for democracy.