The State of the Union is one of the few times in any given year when most people hear a public speech, much less read think pieces and rhetorical criticism about a speech. The contemporary “state of the union” address is a century old—meaning the presidential tradition of delivering what might be an epideictic (praise and blame) speech is a key part of what we’ve come to expect from the office.
When I listened to this year’s speech, I was struck by the emotional whipsaw of it. The highest possible highs trading off with the lowest lows. This seemed quite different from past addresses I have written about.
The general format of the State of the Union address involves the president being introduced by the Speaker of the House (Trump chose to launch right in this year—procedural style be gone), followed by a list of highlights and something like the phrase “the state of our union is strong.” This phrase is a cornerstone of any of these addresses, much like any Spider-Man film will include someone saying “with great power comes great responsibility.” The middle of the speech is usually a boring list of policy priorities. My prior research suggests that the middle of the speech is intentionally boring to lead into a positive ending.
This year’s State of the Union, however, violated my expectations in some surprising ways (e.g., the reproductive rights section of the speech). Using some fairly basic methods in sentiment analysis, I’ve created a rhetorical critique of the speech. Sentiment analysis is a form of emotion A.I. that uses text analysis and language processing to assess the affect of subjective information. It can be used with any kind of text, and is often used in marketing and customer service in relation to survey responses and online posts, but it provides an interesting look at the rhetoric and language used in speeches as well. The code I used to build this project, and the base CSV needed to reproduce it, are available on Github.
I am not interested in facts so much as style here. Facts are useful and important, but they miss the real power of the epideictic address to assign praise and blame. Line by line debate is ineffective in these cases because affect always wins out over argument in speeches. It just doesn’t matter how fast or how strong the facts are.