The people’s state of the union: re-imagining U.S. politics

Could the U.S. President’s annual address be reconfigured as a playful, reflective and connective civic ritual? Here’s how.

Veena Vasista
26 January 2015

USDAC Cultural Agent Jess Solomon speaking at a public forum hosted by the Mayor’s Office in Washington, D.C., 2014. Credit: Marvin Bowser. All rights reserved.  

When President Obama delivered the 93rd State of the Union address in Washington DC last week he returned to one of his favorite subjects—the straitjacket of partisan politics. “Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns,” he said, “Imagine if we did something different.”

But how equipped are members of Congress to re-imagine politics in this way? Perhaps they might want to undergo some training with the “U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.”

Known as the USDAC, the Department defines itself as “the nation's newest people-powered department, founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change.” It’s focused at the moment on organizing a People’s State of the Union, a process designed to re-imagine the President’s annual address as a more playful, reflective and connective civic ritual.

Of course it isn’t actually a government department.  A group of artists launched the USDAC in autumn 2013, when the federal government had temporarily shutdown many of its operations because a highly partisan Congress couldn’t agree a spending bill for the next fiscal year.

While there’s clearly an element of satire involved, the new Department aspires to nothing less than a paradigm shift: “from a consumer to a creator culture, from 'me' to 'we', from a society based in fear, isolation, and competition, to one that is based in equity, empathy, and interconnectedness and that invites the creativity, imagination, and collaboration of all people.”

As part of the People’s State of the Union, Citizen Artists are hosting story circles in over 150 sites across the USA from January 23 to 30. ‘We the people’ are invited to share our stories by choosing from one of these three prompts:

* Tell a story about a moment you felt true belonging—or the opposite—in this country or in your community.

  • * Describe an experience that showed you something new or important about the state of our union.

* Share about a time you stood together with people in your community.

Fueled by the content of these stories, a team of poets led by the Minister for Poetry and Language Protection will then create the “Poetic Address to the Nation.” On February 1st, the Address will be performed at the Bowery Poetry club in New York (for tickets, click here) and broadcast live. After the event, everyone is encouraged to perform the poetic address locally in whatever forms they find enlivening.

I recently interviewed five people with formal roles in USDAC to find out more about how a mock government department invented by artists is going to create a cultural paradigm shift and revitalize U.S. democracy.

Chief Instigator Adam Horowitz pointed me to this extract from the Department’s website, which clarifies the USDAC’s rationale:

“In this era of broken systems—from healthcare to energy to education to the way our entire economy is structured—citizens must be empowered to imagine and enact positive alternatives. To cultivate effective co-creators of new systems based in equality, non-discrimination, and sustainability, we must provide universal access to empowering creative experiences that build empathy and social imagination.”

In his interview, Horowitz was eager to emphasize that the Department is an “act of collective imagination,” an invitation for people to channel their basic human impulses for belonging, solidarity and common purpose into creating the “Beloved Community.”

To maximize resources, the USDAC is building bridges between existing local grass-roots community organizing efforts and national policy and action. However, its primary role seems to be as a multi-generational training ground to grow networks of imaginative and conscientious co-creators—nourishing the inner artist in everyone.

Its arts-centered actions like Imaginings—events at which people are encouraged to imagine the future of their communities at a time when USDAC Values are fully embedded in society—are aimed at helping participants to exercise their ‘muscles’ for imagination, empathy, compassion and reflection.

Cultural Agents  hosted the first round of Imaginings in a dozen locations around the USA in 2014. Jess Solomon, who is a Cultural Agent, hosted an event in Washington DC where people ate, imagined, and created art together to express their different visions. It concluded with an established artist drawing from the content of everyone’s contributions to improvise a performance piece.

Unleashing creativity in this way is a risky business. In her interview, Solomon explained to me that she was struck by how uncomfortable the process of imagining can be for people. “Because you have to come to terms with questions like twenty years from now, who am I going to be and what is this going to mean?”  But people did overcome their discomfort and left the event with a spring in their step and a greater confidence in their co-creative powers.  

Influenced by the practices of activist theater makers, the USDAC uses ‘story circles’ to cultivate empathy, compassion and a sense of equality. Each participant has three minutes to tell their story, and everyone else is instructed to listen with full attention—no exceptions. Once everyone has shared, participants are steered away from embellishing or contradicting other people’s stories. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

The Department’s Chief Policy Wonk, Arlene Goldbard, explained that she’s a fan of story circles because she believes “the way to bring people who are different from any of us closer is to have that experience of sharing and listening.” They are “the most amazingly powerful democratic modality” she’s seen. Goldbard described occasions when, for example, corporate executives in their sixties and eleven year old children “were forced into a situation of total equality by the structure of the interaction…Everybody’s expectations were confounded.”

For many people, the scariest aspect of creating a paradigm shift is to acknowledge and confront what lies inside of us. Artists are constantly creating resources for holding up a mirror to the nature of our relationships and the deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that underpin our militaristic, consumer-oriented, planet-destroying culture.  

As with its action call for police demilitarization, USDAC likes to invite people to jump into challenging reflections such as: “Who are we as people? What do we stand for? How would we like to be remembered?”

Makani Themba, the Department’s Minister for Revolutionary Imagination, explained the goal of the process like this: “to disconnect from and uproot assumptions and take on different assumptions that lay a foundation for transformation and radical change.” In particular, Themba wants people to challenge the assumption that human beings are hard-wired for violence, greed, competition, racism and selfishness, and to “re-imagine ourselves as hard-wired for cooperation and caring.”

She illuminated what she means by posing these questions: “Where do you imagine yourself completely free and connected?”  “If love led you to whatever you did, what would that look like, and where would it take you?”

Daniel Banks, USDAC’s Catalyic Agent, is excited by the Department’s arts-based work to expand people’s imagination and reflection. In his interview with me he suggested that “It is not a huge leap of logic to see why it is that as greed and exploitation increase, an attempt to suppress the arts increases. The arts have the power to be the moral or ethical compass of a society.”

If this sounds like weighty work, that’s because it is. Yet, the USDAC involves a huge amount of play. At its most basic level, its playfulness frees people from the conventional formality and constraints of bureaucracy that stifle imagination and creativity—things like dress codes, language, protocols, hierarchy and partisanship all of which can put people off and keep them from participating.   

The Department has pop-up offices that can be opened anywhere, like on a sidewalk. Its cabinet members make up their own titles. And the Deputy Secretary might make a speech while playing the accordion.

Last week, President Obama stood at his podium in the U.S. Capitol and invited members of Congress to “do things differently.”

Next week, when it broadcasts the “Poetic Address to the Nation,” the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture will issue a much more provocative invitation: Why don’t ‘we the people’ come together to co-create the world we really want to inhabit? And, of course, have lots of fun along the way.


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