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.

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.

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.”

When Stewart was a guest on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, a show he’d developed a particular affinity for mocking on the air, the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson tried to undermine his credibility by accusing him of giving presidential candidate John Kerry softball questions. “You’re on CNN,” Stewart shot back. “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls!” Carlson’s pointed questions were rendered dull and irrelevant.

Finally, humorous attacks can only be countered with equally witty humor. Sarah Palin, the queen of the political zinger, has found mockery to be one of her most effective rhetorical weapons. She came out punching at the 2008 Republican National Convention, delivering a speech that earned her an army of nascent Tea Party supporters and riled Democratic activists into donating $10 million against her in one day.

How do you respond to Sarah Palin?

How was Mr. Obama to respond to gems such as “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” or her eminently quotable 2010 National Tea Party convention hit, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?”?

A serious response – such as “My hopey-changey stuff is working just fine, thank you very much!” – would cast Obama as the fool. Ignoring the question would lend the appearance of backing down. News organizations damage their own credibility when they harp on the silly jabs; The Daily Show is fond of ridiculing news channels for focusing on such insignificances.

Is it any wonder that the only person who could really foil Mrs. Palin was Tina Fey, whose spot-on impersonations on Saturday Night Live did more to derail Palin than all the “gotcha liberal media,” combined? Like a gorilla’s chest-thumping, showing off comedic finesse and outwitting one’s opponent is a demonstration of power. “Have you ever seen a boss of a company who couldn’t crack a joke?” asks Mankoff.

The meaning of mockery

In the age of hyperpartisan news punditry, the likes of which provide much fodder for Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” the art of mockery has taken on a new level of meaning. Factionalized, ideologically driven blogs and 24/7 news channels, whose shrill shouts to attract the viewership of every brand of partisan, naturally lend themselves to sarcastic politicking, while providing ample material for comedians.

Moreover, politicians’ inability to “disagree without being disagreeable,” has fueled a burning desire by the broad political center for moderation, which is the central rallying cry of Stewart’s event. More than anything else, it is the Left’s desire for civility, which Obama was unable to bring to Washington, that has turned a comedian into a political star.

Niv Elis is the founder of the DC protest blog Quotidian Dissent, and is the Harold S. White Fellow at Moment magazine.

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