In defense of partisan SOTU seating

As part of a symbolic gesture, more than 180 members of Congress have reportedly committed to having a seatmate from the other party at the State of the Union address. It’s apparently intended to be a move to demonstrate a degree of bipartisanship — lawmakers don’t really hate one another, the argument goes, if they’re willing to sit with colleagues they disagree with.

The idea has become popular enough that a non-partisan group called No Labels even took out a full-page ad in the New York Times recently, insisting upon bipartisan SOTU seating.

I’m not necessarily bothered by the notion of bipartisan seating. But I think the traditional model has underappreciated virtues.

For those who aren’t familiar with the usual arrangements, when presidents appear in the House chamber to deliver State of the Union addresses, Democrats nearly always sit on their side of the aisle, while Republicans sit on the other.

Over the last couple of years, most notably in the wake of last year’s shootings in Tucson, there’s been a drive towards more intermingling. Dan Amira made an argument a while back that still strikes me as compelling:

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.

That sounds right to me. When Republicans, for example, stand in response to something President Obama says, that conveys something important to the public. Intersperse members, and the visual lessons disappear.

We’d be left, in effect, with cues from just two people — Vice President Biden and Speaker Boehner, who’ll be seated behind the president, and who probably won’t be standing in unison.