Applause: The Earliest Poll

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The State of the Union, as a speech, is technically delivered by the president. As an event, though, its performance falls just as much on its audience. Given that the speech itself often contains a highly predictable message—and given, too, that its text is often leaked to media outlets long before it is delivered—the real drama, for the people watching the spectacle at home, generally involves reaction shots: the cameras capturing the nation’s government, officials both elected and non-, reacting dramatically to the words the nation’s president utters. They grin. They nod approvingly. They nod disapprovingly. They smirk. They check their phones, passive-aggressively.
Most of all, though, they applaud. Which is to say that they take part in the weird and longstanding ritual that is slapping one’s palms together to make noise. Meaningful, communicative, politically fraught noise.
Watching last night’s State of the Union, I kept thinking about applause as a cultural activity—as a way for a crowd to say something, en masse, without actually saying a thing. And I kept thinking, because of that, of ancient Rome. Not because of the grand columns in the House chamber, or because of the rare spectacle of senators gathered together, or because of the back-stabbings, implied if not actual, that will resonate through any modern political speech … but because of the way those ancient exercisers of democracy used applause for their political ends.
I wrote about this a few years ago: For ancient Romans, applause was an early form of big data. It was a way for citizens to communicate with their leaders. It was, in its way, a kind of proto-poll—an ancient answer to CNN’s State of the Union reaction-tracker. Last night’s applause might have been thoroughly modern—reactions to an American president’s declarations about America’s path further into the 21st century—but it was also, it’s humbling and pretty awesome to remember, thoroughly ancient.