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Jon Stewart and a question of 'Sanity': why a comedian is now liberals' No. 1 hero

As the 'Rally to Restore Sanity' shows, America's liberals are increasingly turning to Jon Stewart as their most inspirational figure. Part of the reason is President Obama's declining political fortunes, but ultimately it is the left’s desire for civility that has turned a comedian into a political star.

By Niv Elis / October 29, 2010



Washington

Since Glenn Beck’s August “Rally to Restore Honor” produced an impressive turnout, the nation’s left has eagerly awaited an organized response. The unions tried to promote their “One Nation” rally in October as the answer to Mr. Beck, but the sparsely attended protest floundered in comparison.

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The event that has instead entered the collective consciousness as the meaningful rejoinder to Beck is Jon Stewart’s coming “Rally to Restore Sanity.” With some 225,000 people pledging to attend on the rally’s Facebook page, it looks as though Mr. Stewart may out-mobilize both the unions, those traditional bastions of the Left, and Mr. Beck himself.

The Stewart mobilization phenomenon invites a difficult question for liberal Americans: Why is a comedian, a self-mocking joker, their most inspirational figure?

Impossible expectations

One reason is the decline of Barack Obama’s political star. The unifying personality of the 2008 election, who campaigned on hope and change in the disillusioned twilight of the Bush presidency, set expectations that were impossible to meet. Two years later, the country still faces high unemployment and relentless partisan bickering in Washington, elevating mistrust of politicians to new heights.

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As election polls have made clear, “outsiders” have a distinct advantage over establishment “insiders,” making figures like Stewart, who is more beholden to a punch line than a party line, appealing and trustworthy. Stewart also wields a powerful, if underestimated political weapon: comedy.

Comedy is “actually the voice of democracy,” says The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Humor “tells us something’s fishy.”

Humor's three distinct advantages

The humorous approach to politics has three distinct advantages over playing it straight.

The first is that comedy can entice a disengaged audience to partake in a political debate. Stewart’s nightly diatribes against Fox News draw nearly twice as many viewers as MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann, who does the same thing in his signature monotone.

Second, political humor can hide behind a veneer of entertainment to deflect criticism. Much like the Shakespearian fool, modern-day comics are free to speak common-sense truths under the guise of foolishness. “That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all,” Isaac Asimov wrote in “Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.”

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