When Jokes Trump Discourse

Sam Fulwood III wonders what’s become of our country’s political dialogue when mock rallies threaten to draw more supporters than real ones.

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Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart are holding overlapping rallies at the end of the month that may draw more supporters than the slew of recent rallies and marches in Washington, D.C. (AP/Matt Sayles)
Stephen Colbert, left, and Jon Stewart are holding overlapping rallies at the end of the month that may draw more supporters than the slew of recent rallies and marches in Washington, D.C. (AP/Matt Sayles)

Back in late August, Glenn Beck and his “Rally to Restore Honor” took over the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Mall, attracting an estimated 350,000 conservatives and Tea Party activists who called for a retrograde America circa 1950. In a simultaneous march, the Rev. Al Sharpton led a much smaller group in a parade through downtown Washington that ended not too far from the Beck rally.

Then, last weekend, a mélange of labor, civil rights, and other progressive organizations gathered for the “One Nation” march, drawing about 200,000 liberals who advocated for peace, jobs, prosperity, and nearly every other left-leaning cause the speakers could cram in.

Next up, on October 30, it’s Comedy Central’s turn to mock it all with a pair of overlapping rallies that are likely to draw bigger crowds than any of the earnest groups representing the political edges. The pay cable network’s faux news-and-politics commentator Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” will host a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” while his tongue-in-cheek colleague Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” headlines a “March to Keep Fear Alive.”

Who says political activism isn’t a form of mass insanity? Indeed, there’s a certain element of extremist lunacy (some call it anger, others term it citizenship) that pushes otherwise ordinary folks to express their grievances in the public square before an audience of like-minded citizens. Indeed, one of the few things that nearly all Americans—right, left, and center—agree on is that proper American behavior includes the right to assemble and protest.

Still, these upcoming fake rallies, led by entertainers who have perfected the act of satirical news pundits, strike me as a Rubicon-crossing moment. If Stewart and Colbert draw more fans to their rally on the Mall than the ostensibly serious political activists did with their 2010 marches, it will mark the moment when jokes trump serious discourses. In other words, it will erase what’s left of the blurred line separating real politics from profit-seeking pop culture.

This moment has been unwinding for some time. Politicians of all stripes have gone to great pains to link themselves with pop culture icons, posing for pictures with Hollywood stars or giving shout-outs to celebrities at their campaign stops. Perhaps the apex of this occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign when then-Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, wearing Ray-Bans and playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on the saxophone, appeared on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” That performance solidified Clinton’s pop culture bona fides with a generation of previously politically disinterested young people.

Since then, it’s become a rite of passage for politicians to make the rounds and sit to the right of late-night talk hosts, all of which are quick-witted comedians. So it was only a matter of time before the comedians took the act on the road to play the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

In fact, Stewart said as much during a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” He wanted to make it clear that he’s not advocating for any set of policies or candidates. He and Colbert are coming to Washington just to make fun of those who do.

“Like everything that we do, the march is merely a construct,” he said. “It’s merely a format, in the way the book is a format, a show is a format … to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do and the point of view [that we have].”

That’s all well and good. Political satire is an American tradition, too. The problem comes when people are confused by the show or fail to see the act as “merely a construct.” Unfortunately, far too many people watch Stewart’s and Colbert’s shtick for political insights, taking the act far more seriously than even the actors take themselves.

One of them may be the president. In an effort to show his hipness to young people, Obama plugged the Stewart rally—sort of. He got the name of the rally tongue-twisted when he mentioned it to a group of supporters gathered for a real-life political event at a suburban Richmond, Virginia, home.

“I was amused—Jon Stewart, you know, the host of ‘The Daily Show,’ apparently he’s going to host a rally called something like Americans in favor of a return to sanity, or something like that,” Obama told the supporters.

There’s something surreal and topsy-turvy about a fake rally being cited as a political calling card for the president on the campaign stump. Clearly, a page is being turned in our national, political debate.

So what does this say about the future of political rallies in the nation’s capital? No matter how many angry citizens gather in the shadow of the Lincoln and Washington monuments, will anyone ever take them or their causes seriously again?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)