However the State of the Union is, the State of Washington, DC, is more or less static for now: we have the same President, the same Congress, the same apparent odds of major actions that can have the blessing of both. This left President Obama, Tuesday night, vowing to use executive action where possible to act on his own, and the Republicans, in a response from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, seeking to strike a new tone in anticipation of a new election.
But if the President and Congress have little hope of delivering major legislation, they showed America still has one tool available to it: the most powerful pop cultural references on Earth.
The Republicans fired the first TV allusion, with Duck Dynasty cast member Willie Robertson attending–full beard flying and wearing an American flag bandana–as the guest of a Louisiana congressman. Since Willie’s father, Phil Robertson, was briefly suspended from the show in December for his remarks about homosexuality and race relations, the show has evolved from reality sitcom to cultural political totem–a symbol for cultural conservatives who believe their values are being squashed and marginalized in Obama’s America. Whatever Willie’s intentions in showing up, for Republicans he was like a human protest sign, the next best thing to waving a DON’T TREAD ON ME flag in a joint session of Congress.
President Obama had no TV stars to point out, but he used another basic-cable touchstone to make a point of his own, about raising wages for women and providing family leave for parents. “It’s time,” he said, “to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.” Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, not in attendance, later gave a statement to the New York Times: “I support the President, and I’m honored that our show is part of a much-needed national conversation.”
OK, so two dueling cable-TV references does not a Lincoln-Douglas debate make. But the choice of symbols does neatly capture the two sides talking past each other right now, in a larger debate that’s not just about politics but life: marriage, work, social norms, the relations among men and women, our perspective on our own history. One show is rural, one is urban; one earnest, one ironic.
Duck Dynasty is a present-day comedy that’s about the past; its subtext, in part, is that things were better back when, or at least that our families would all be better off remembering old-fashioned values, and that we’ve lost something in the modern age. Mad Men is nearly the opposite: it’s set in the past, but while it luxuriates in the details of costumes and highballs, it’s built on the assumption–which made it such an obvious touchpoint for Obama–that the social standards of the past are something to be overcome, moved past, an object lesson to be learned from, discarded, and never repeated. You might watch both shows in the same living room, on the same basic-cable package, but their worlds, and the imagined headspace of their audiences, could not be farther apart.
When you can’t act through legislation, you act through symbols. And that’s something we don’t lack for. Which is why it was maybe most appropriate that the last word in this debate went neither to a Robertson nor a Draper but House of Cards’ cynical Francis Underwood, on Twitter: