What do Michael Moore’s obscene-grannies ad, that creepy Obama-kiddie-body-snatchers song, and Joss Whedon’s Romney-zombie-apocalypse rant have in common? Each represents an appeal to the Democrats’ fundamental constituency: the Dumb Vote. Or, as I call them, Jon Stewart’s audience.
It is always surprising to me how highly regarded Mr. Stewart is among a certain segment of high-affect/low-information voters. Unlike his colleague Stephen Colbert, who is a gifted satirist, Mr. Stewart is a one-trick snark artist whose shtick is fundamentally cowardly. He sometimes wants to play rough with the more serious crowd, as in his famous denunciation of Crossfire, but when he is seriously challenged on anything of substance, he retreats into his aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-comedian cave.
A disturbingly large number of people get a great deal of their news and views from Mr. Stewart’s show and similar outlets, and they operate politically along the same model as the show, which is to say they substitute banalities for analysis and posturing for thinking. Understanding, for example, the real substantive differences between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on taxes takes a good deal of work. Because the Dumb Vote is not willing or able to do the work, things unfold like this: Barack Obama complains that Mitt Romney plans to give “tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires and corporations,” Jon Stewart turns that into something in the approximate form of a joke, and the Dumb Vote har-hars about it, nodding its collective head at its own pseudo-insight. If you happen to complicate that view with an incongruous fact — for example, that Barack Obama proposes to reduce corporate tax rates — then the discussion just moves on to another joke: binders full of women, Mormon polygamy, whatever.
It is only in that kind of emotionally based, information-free environment that something like Mr. Moore’s vulgarity can thrive. I would not say that it’s likely to change minds, because minds are not what is at work here. Think about the rhetorical structure of Mr. Moore’s ad and its strategy. The point of the ad is to argue that Republicans are engaged in “voter suppression” because in some states they have insisted on such straightforward integrity measures as asking for a legitimate photo identification card for voters, or purging felons and other ineligible voters from the electoral lists. Mr. Moore, being a crafty rhetorician, never presents an argument that these measures are unwarranted or unfair; he simply assumes the sale, knowing that the not-very-bright among us will be giggling at the prospect of old ladies using foul language, and therefore unable to think critically about the implicit argument of the advertisement — because they are, simply put, not smart enough to giggle and think at the same time.
Mr. Whedon’s version of this is more tasteful (it would be hard not to be) and slightly more of the moment, with its ironic endorsement of the ever-popular zombie apocalypse. But take a listen to the issues that Mr. Whedon is worried about: “overpopulation,” “ungoverned corporate privilege,” and his belief that Mitt Romney’s vision is an America in which we “stop pretending we care about each other.”
The buffet of ignorance on display here is impressive: The United States is anything but overpopulated, and persistent fears about overpopulation have been a staple of Chicken Little thinking at least since Malthus. The population-growth rate of the planet has been declining since the 1960s. Most population scientists predict that the planet’s population will stabilize and then begin to decline sometime around the end of this century. Many countries already are experiencing acute economic problems related to falling birth rates. But of course the population scare has long been invoked on behalf of abortion and related issues, so nobody can be bothered to think too hard about it. As for “ungoverned corporate privilege,” I wonder what Mr. Whedon believes explains GM’s access to taxpayer capital, or GE’s low tax bills under Obama-approved policies?
And “pretending that we care about each other”? If Mr. Whedon could document that he has given one-half the amount in charitable contributions that Mitt Romney has, I would be endlessly surprised. But hypocrisy is the least of the problems with this line of argument: Mr. Whedon’s implicit argument — one that he probably does not understand himself — is that “caring” is a purely expressive gesture rather than a substantive one, voting for the right candidate instead of doing the right thing.
Romney, whatever else you think about him, is somebody who has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. In Mr. Whedon’s view of the world, none of that dirty-handed business is necessary: All that is necessary is that one cast a symbolic vote for the man who promises to care, and to express that care by expropriating money from people you don’t like and giving it to people for whom you have a moral concern that is at best theoretical. That is the cheapest form of charity, which surely would occur to Mr. Whedon and his admirers, if they ever took the time to think about it. Fortunately for President Obama, they have shown neither the inclination nor the ability to do so.
For the Dumb Vote, voting is simply an expression of affiliation, a way of marking one’s membership in the tribe of the compassionately ironic or ironically compassionate or whatever. It is a gesture for people who are absolutely certain that they are right — not because they have any meaningful information, but because they are absolutely certain that the other side is evil, which is why they so quickly and consistently revert to claims of racism against a movement that includes lots of non-white partisans, claims of misogyny against a movement that includes an enormous number of women, claims of aspiring Christian theocracy against a movement that includes a great many non-Christians and that is noted for its affinity with the Jewish state, etc.
The unfortunate truth is that Jon Stewart doesn’t represent the bottom end of Democratic thinking, but something somewhere in the middle of it. If anything should be keeping Mitt Romney awake tonight, it’s that the Dumb Vote is bigger than he thinks.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.