What Nikki Haley Left Out Of Her State Of The Union Response

Photo: Alex Wong/ Getty Images.
Tuesday night saw President Obama’s final State of the Union address. As per tradition, the opposing political party followed the speech with an address of its own, with last night’s Republican response delivered by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

Haley began her speech by echoing many of the themes addressed by the president, if drawing different conclusions from them. Like Obama, she spoke intelligently about the deep partisan divide in Washington, D.C. “While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone," she said. "There is more than enough blame to go around.”

It’s refreshing to hear politicians admit that the system is flawed and that blame lies on both sides. Like the president’s address, Haley’s speech tried to focus on the positive, and the progress we still need to achieve, and avoided the partisan vitriol that can sometimes characterize policy debates. The State of the Union response is a difficult and thankless job, and many other politicians have stumbled under the pressure. Haley showed poise and intelligence, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see her on a short list of possible vice-presidential candidates.

But one seemingly positive story felt a little off. “Twelve faithful men and women, young and old, went to Bible study. That night, someone new joined them,” she said, referencing the tragic Charleston, SC, shooting that saw nine members of a Black church killed in an alleged hate crime over the summer. “We lost nine incredible souls that night.”

Haley spoke movingly about her state’s response to the tragedy. “We didn’t have violence, we had vigils. We didn’t have riots, we had hugs. We didn’t turn against each other’s race or religion.”

That is all true, but it’s hardly the whole story. Haley’s account of citizens coming together in the face of tragedy omitted the intense debate that sprang up over the place of racist iconography in American culture, and in South Carolina in particular. “We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us,” she acknowledged, referencing the state’s removal of the Confederate battle flag from its statehouse.

But Haley didn't describe the demonstrations, activism, and heated debates that led to its removal. Nor did she mention the highly publicized act of civil disobedience by Bree Newsome, who was arrested after climbing the flagpole outside of the statehouse and cutting down the flag. Instead, she framed the state’s choice as a voluntary decision, made in an attempt to heal a grieving community.

Omitting the citizen activism behind the flag’s removal is good PR for Haley and the Republican Party, but it misrepresents the way that activism and social policy have worked in the past few years. States and governments make changes when public pressure demands it, and rarely is political or ideological change made solely through the goodness of authorities’ hearts. Overlooking the force of public outcry undermines the role of citizen political involvement and the power of the voices calling for change.

While Haley is right that the removal of the flag was ultimately something very positive to grow from tragedy, the end result is not the only important fact. Sometimes, the means can be just as, if not more, telling.

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