Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity will run for about three hours on the National Mall this weekend. In that length of time, will the gathering actually be able to restore sanity to America’s political dialogue?
Well, that’s a high bar. We’re pretty sure that on Sunday, Democratic and Republican candidates will still be labeling one another “extreme” and running attack ads with scary music and unflattering shots of their opponents. Even after Tuesday’s elections, party leaders of all persuasions will continue to describe the other side as the main obstacle to getting the sputtering US economy back on track.
For Mr. Stewart, this persistence of partisanship is a good thing, by the way. If American politics were as placid as the Rio Grande at sunset, he’d have a much harder time finding things to skewer on his show.
But it’s possible the rally could have some effect on the national conversation. Rallies have before – look at Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington. Glenn Beck supporters would argue that his recent Mall meeting will have lasting significance on US moral attitudes and religious beliefs.
So we’ll look at both sides of the issue. Isn’t that the reasonable thing to do? Here are reasons for and against the likelihood that the Rally to Restore Sanity will take things down a notch for America:
For. One powerful argument for the importance of this weekend’s assembly is that many of those planning to attend are themselves taking it seriously. Perhaps Stewart and his in-house foil, Stephen Colbert, conceived of their dueling-rally shtick as a comic scheme to boost ratings. But if you look on the rally’s Facebook page, you’ll find hundreds of people vowing to attend – not in the name of having a good time, but in the name of taking back the nation’s politics from what they see as extremists.
In addition, the rally comes at a propitious time: The percentage of people who believe America is on the right track is near a historic low. The silent majority of US voters is desperate for its politicians stop yapping and get something positive done, for goodness' sake. Stewart has discovered a theme that resonates from Connecticut to California.
And, finally, people from California to Connecticut will be there – if not in person, via video, as the rally will be telecast on Comedy Central and streamed live on the Web. Satellite rallies are taking place all over the country – indeed, all over the world. The Rally to Restore Sanity has become a phenomenon.
Against. The rally is only three hours long. In three hours, you can’t restore sanity to the kitchen after a fancy Sunday brunch. US politics today is a 24/7 cable-news carnival, with new acts arriving daily. The Rally to Restore Sanity will appear briefly and then be forgotten as pundits rush to talk about what happened to tea party candidates in the elections.
Plus, while many attendees want to restore sanity, others want to talk about their own particular and longstanding agenda. Co-option is a danger for an event that many Republicans see as leaning Democratic. For instance, Public Citizen, an anticorporate advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, on Friday sent out a press release promoting its own “What Sign Should I Bring to Jon Stewart’s Rally?” contest.
Trust us – they won’t be the only such group to take advantage of the rally’s expected mass audience.
The rally itself is in essence a production of Viacom, which owns Comedy Central. Won’t it view the rally essentially as a brand-boosting opportunity for one of its best-performing properties, as opposed to a chance to change the world?
Finally, the people who most need to change won’t be there. Isn’t an attendee at a rally to restore sanity already sane, almost by definition? (Otherwise they would be at a “March to Keep Fear Alive,” or something like that.) It’s the politicians who need to act more sensibly.
Perhaps what America really needs is a Rally to Restore Sanity that’s held not on the National Mall, but on the floors of the House and Senate.