Stewart and Colbert rallies in Washington: Political activism for the rest of us?

Comedy Central talk show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced dueling rallies in Washington October 30.

Jason DeCrow/AP/File
Jon Stewart is shown during a taping of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in New York, in this March 12, 2009 file photo. Mr. Stewart last night announced a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in Washington October 30.

I'm a busy guy. With two young kids, I don't have time to attend political rallies. In fact, I barely have time to blog about political rallies.

Rally to Restore Sanity

So it was refreshing to hear about Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity. Mr. Stewart's rally is ambitious, to say the least: He wants busy, non-extremists to put their lives on hold and join him in an effort to "take it down a notch for America." As he wrote:

Ours is a rally for the people who've been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) -- not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence... we couldn't. That's sort of the point.

...Join us in the shadow of the Washington Monument. And bring your indoor voice. Or don't. If you'd rather stay home, go to work, or drive your kids to soccer practice... Actually, please come anyway. Ask the sitter if she can stay a few extra hours, just this once. We'll make it worth your while.

An old problem in politics

I'll probably be too busy raking leaves to go, but even if many members of the Busy Majority fail to show, Stewart has already succeeded in calling attention to the domination of American politics by extreme partisans.

Stewart has promised to feature special guests who will presumably address the problem posed by extreme factions in American politics. Too bad one of them couldn't be James Madison, because he provided what still stands as the best answer to this vexing question back in 1787.

In The Federalist No. 10, Madison examined the danger posed by factions in a democracy. He wrote: "Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."

You can hear echoes of that sentiment in Stewart's appeal: "We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat..."

A republic, not a democracy

So what was Madison's answer? Don't try to control the causes of factions, he warned.

Instead, we can control their effects – if we make sure that America is truly a republic, and not a pure democracy. As Madison wrote, "A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union."

The Federalist Papers don't distill well to bumper-sticker slogans, so to appreciate Madison's treatment, read the whole essay.

Stewart is right to mock the extreme chatter that dominates cable talk shows, web discussion forums, and most rallies in Washington. But extreme sarcasm isn't the only antidote. The founding fathers were part of the Busy Majority, too – and they found time to put in place a system that could check our worst impulses. Now it's up to us to demonstrate their wisdom.

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