During the Democratic primaries in 2008, Rush Limbaugh famously launched “Operation Chaos” to keep the divisive contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton going. The Jon Stewart “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” might as well have been the product of an “Operation Diversion.”
How to keep as many liberals as possible safely in thrall to their own smug superiority and distaste for the rough-and-tumble of political persuasion? Give them a rally a few days before the election in which they can amuse themselves with their ironic signs and their highhanded dismissal of anyone not as exquisitely reasonable as they are. “Yes, We Can (Congratulate Ourselves).”
The host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Stewart gets credit for sincerity. He made repeated heartfelt pleas for civility in our political discourse, and zapped offenders on both the right and the left. He’s a sharp wit with a rock star’s following, as the estimated crowd of 200,000 attests. His weakness is a magnificent lack of self-awareness.
Stewart lectures about the tone of our politics and our media as if he’s Charlie Rose or George Will. Of course, he’s neither. He’s the host of a comedy show that relies on mockery and japery to make its points, and depends on the conceit that the other side is a collection of reprobates and idiots.
The morality tale that framed Stewart’s rally had all the subtlety of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” or a WWE skit. Jon Stewart, the reasonable liberal, does battle with Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” who pretends to be a self-parodic conservative. The question is whether to give into fear or not, with Stewart pleading “no” and Colbert using underhanded means to argue “yes.” Colbert did everything but don a Snidely Whiplash mustache and tie a damsel in distress to the railroad tracks.
This was a merely a more amusing, less partisan gloss on the Democratic plaint this year that Republicans are exploiting fear. But doesn’t every political party? When Democrats said George W. Bush was violating our civil liberties, pursuing “endless war” and plunging us into a depression, they weren’t trying to evoke feelings of affection or trust.
What shouldn’t be underestimated — although it is all the time — is how affirmative the Tea Party is. Listen to a speech by, say, Tea Party–infused Republican Senate candidates Ron Johnson in Wisconsin or Marco Rubio in Florida, and you’ll hear the expression of an achingly earnest love of country. Although that’s the kind of thing Jon Stewart makes fun of, too.
Stewart scored his most telling points against the hyperbole and scaremongering of the media. At bottom, though, this speaks to a nostalgia for the more sedate, consensual media environment of the days of Walter Cronkite. Those days aren’t coming back, and Stewart should be glad. There wasn’t any room back then for “fake news,” and people prone to call the president of the United States “dude” — as Stewart did when he appeared on the show last week — weren’t typically granted presidential interviews.
Now, we have more contentious, diverse, and sprawling media, in keeping with our contentious, diverse, and sprawling republic. In his closing statement, Stewart inveighed against that very contentiousness, complaining that we cooperate everywhere in America but in the place where representatives of two different philosophies are sent to contend over the nation’s future, namely Congress.
Should Obama have scaled back his ambitions in the interest of congressional comity? On the contrary. In his interview with the president, Stewart said Obama’s program “has felt timid at times.” This reflects the childish liberal belief that, upon the triumph of hope and change in November 2008, a wondrously new dispensation had arrived. When Obama now bows enough to reality to say “yes, we can, but . . . ,” Stewart fans laugh bitterly.
They can comfort themselves with all their “reasonableness” and “sanity” — compared with, you know, most of the rest of the country. “Operation Diversion” proceeds apace.