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Jon Stewart Isn't Enough

Why liberalism needs more than satire and common sense.

Demonstrators have been coming to Washington since Coxey’s Army trudged up the steps of the Capitol during the depression of the 1890s. So it was probably inevitable that the traditional repertoire of protest would, by now, have grown rather stale. These days, passionate orators, earnest singers, and fist-shaking marches down the National Mall rarely matter much. The “One Nation” rally held by the NAACP, labor unions, and other liberal groups on a perfect day in early October barely managed to fill the lawns around the Reflecting Pool and offered no coherent message other than hostility toward the Tea Parties and their favorite candidates. Most of the nation probably didn’t even know the event had occurred. In contrast, Glenn Beck’s call to “Restore Honor” drew twice as many people, nearly all of whom were united by the strong twin desires to crush the left and praise the Lord. Still, even with its clear purpose and large turnout, the rally slipped from the limelight very quickly.

This weekend, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s massive “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was, at least, a novel sort of political demonstration. And I do mean political. Granted, Stewart and his merry band of satirists, as promised, presented themselves as the bards of civil discourse and didn’t suggest how people should vote this year—or whether they should vote at all. They talked, and/or joked, about how to think, not what to think. Yet nearly every sign I saw and conversation I had, or overheard, among the masses gathered near the Capitol confirmed what should have been obvious to anyone who has ever watched The Daily Show or The Colbert Report: This was a liberal crowd of mostly young, white people who voted for Obama and are contemptuous of his conservative opponents.

The sign-makers in particular were the most political—as well as funny and refreshing—parts of the rally. They imitated Stewart’s clever put-downs of the right while eschewing his plea for reasonableness: “I masturbate, and I vote”; “You’re mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore”; “Glenn Beck: Show Us Your High-School Diploma”; “Trickle Down Economics is a Golden Shower”; “Support the Separation of Corporation and State”; “Homophobia is Gay.” Two young women dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles carried signs that read, “Please don’t fear my Muslim Garb.” (It was, after all, the day before Halloween.) One of the best posters I saw took the sanity meme to heart but was clearly directed against alarmists like Beck who traffic in absurd historical metaphors: On it were pasted two identical photos of Adolf Hitler connected by an equal sign.

Indeed, the key question coming out of this rally—which was only a moderate success, considering the wretched sound system, the paucity of Jumbotrons, and the odd musical coupling of Ozzy Osbourne and Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens—isn’t whether it was political. The question is whether liberalism, so clearly on the display at the event, can grow on a diet of irony, satire, and sarcasm mixed with appeals to  “common sense.”

Stewart’s concluding remarks, in which he denied that “our country is on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate” and asserted that “we work together to get things done every damn day,” reminded me of Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. “There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” announced the state senator from Chicago in his bravura debut on the national stage. He then went on to upbraid the “pundits” who “like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states” but ignore that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.”

That message helped elect Obama president. But, since he’s been in the White House, Obama’s reasonable rhetoric and pleas for bipartisanship have mostly been thrown back in his remarkably calm face. And the results of the midterm elections will make clear that the divide between “blue” and “red” America is as deep as ever, even if the chasm doesn’t fall neatly along state lines. After failing this president, appeals to focus on common sense and common ground, no matter how wittily conveyed by comedians, will likely not bring liberals any more success in the future.      

Civility is a fine and pleasant thing, but it has never inspired a serious political or social movement—or revived the fortunes of a president. Irony and satire can be potent modes of persuasion, but what do Stewart and Colbert’s liberal supporters want to persuade their fellow Americans to actually think or do? The Comedy Central duo has done a reasonable job highlighting what they think is wrong with our system of government, the people seeking to influence it, and the media covering it. But time spent by liberal rally-goers and Daily Show viewers complaining about how politics is conducted would be better spent deciding what issues to promote, fight for, and win. In a time of economic crisis and fears of national decline, it is not enough to make fun of the lies and sloppy thinking of the right. People need to engage in the political process to reform and push it forward, not agree that we’re all more reasonable than the media portray us and promise to behave civilly.

Like it or not, America remains a nation of true believers. Secular liberals with a decent sense of humor will have to learn, or relearn, how to adapt to that reality and turn it to their advantage. Or they can just pick up their remotes and watch Comedy Central.