Politics dressed as entertainment

Entertainers Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Glenn Beck have been dominating the political landscape in the US.

Glenn Beck has built a media empire that generates more than $32m annually by speaking directly to people’s fears and the prejudices that motivate them [EPA]

Coming on the eve of midterm elections, many asked about the political importance of the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” organised by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Would it be able to help the Democrats bounce from what is looking like a major shellacking coming their way today?

Given the lack of any real shared political platform or vision for the country, the political relevance of the rally seems unworthy of serious discussion. There was no call to action or clear directives. It was as if the centre-left has moved on from Moveon.org. It appeared primarily to be about amusement mixed with some feel-good politics about the need for well-behaved political deliberation as the backbone for American democracy. 

Jon Stewart had some more of his usually incisive criticism of the sad American media. To parrot the lazy dismissal lobbed by American pundits at the latest WikiLeaks document dump, I would say Stewart seemed not to say anything new. The real novelty was the massive crowd he and Colbert produced.

Overall, the show was a bit dumber than the shows’ often brilliant commentary and pseudo-reportage.

Is it fair to ask for anything more?

There is a deep confusion about the relationship between entertainment and politics in the US. We live in an era where politicians must perform, keep us amused, and where news cannot be “boring”. We learn of current affairs from non-traditional outlets such as The Daily Show. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Stewart, Colbert and Beck are just entertainers.

I admit some people tune in simply for amusement’s sake. However, what makes them so compelling, what really drives their ratings, is their relevance in today’s political climate. They do more than just making people laugh.

The holiday of Halloween was the perfect backdrop for their gathering in Washington DC. Truth be told, the rally was essentially a corporate PR event for the Stewart-Colbert brand. It was a ratings spree.

On October 30, the day before Halloween, their brand went trick-or-treating as a feel-good political rally. It had elements of both tricks and treats, but in the end it showed that we cannot continue to let entertainers innocently pass as apolitical sideshows. They are now leaders, as dangerous as that may seem.

If the Tea Party could be thought of as the bad spirits, then many Americans found their solace in an essentially masked event put on by Comedy Central. Despite the clear business interests at stake, the products, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are essentially political programs. They deny this. How was Stewart’s eloquent closing plea for a more civic discourse entertaining? It seemed deeply serious even if he strove to disavow its gravity.

Let us consider the political context. The American Right is resurgent and looks set to win considerable seats in the midterm elections on Tuesday.

The Tea Party is a broad-based and well-funded populist group of small government libertarians, cultural nativists, religious fundamentalists, and traditional conservatives. It represents the strongest political movement in the country today. The common platform is to lessen taxes, reverse Obama’s health care reforms, and generally diminish the federal government’s size.

Common cause with the Fox News network gave way to obscenely large public rallies, which then spawned the event Stewart and Colbert sought to satirise. Late in August, Fox News personality Glenn Beck, himself a media superstar and “entertainer”, put on a gathering in the national mall aimed at restoring “honour”. Taking place on the anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Beck claimed to advance a non-political, non-sectarian vision for the country.

I guess Martin Luther King Jr. was an entertainer as well.

Like Beck, Colbert and Stewart regularly self-describe as entertainers first. Recall when in 2004 Jon Stewart ridiculed Tucker Carlson on CNN’s since-cancelled screamfest programme Cross-Fire for having the nerve to hold The Daily Show to journalistic standards. The comedian called out the absurdity of  comparing a show on CNN to one on Comedy Central, a channel in the depths of basic cable, as Stewart likes to jest. 

This theme brought down Carlson bow-tie first. And it is the same issue that Stewart propagated at the rally, souding more like a campaign for media reform than simple entertainment.

The rally also admirably challenged Islamophobia. At a time when Quran-burning is supported by significant sectors of public opinion, and groups actively aim to expose the president’s secret Muslim identity, such messages are subversive. This message, more than anything else that was said, could have repercussions at all levels of American political culture. Stewart and Colbert do a service by mocking hatred into shame.

Beck’s seemingly generic call for respect of God and country, but not big government, is also powerful. These are vague, lowest common denominator principles that are sold as transcending politics. But they could actually shape the country’s political development.

Beck, Stewart and, to a lesser degree, Colbert peddle in ideas about how government should be practiced and how groups in society should relate to each other. These ideas may not be well-formed necessarily, and are put on as fun, but they are important given the sheer amount of circulation they get.

Being labelled entertainment should not let them off the hook for the consequences of their ideas. It should not let them escape the responsibility of their leadership, even if it is only in the name of fun, profit or influence.

We should probe Stewart’s call for sanity, and take him to task to explicate what this means for real politics. We should ask difficult questions such as does the two-party system, and influxes of private campaign funding, facilitate this low state of political talk?

Failure to get to the real issues at stake and the real consequences of such ideas, amounts to a distraction. As Rush Limbaugh pointed out, this rally and the thousand or so satellite events around the country meant less campaign volunteer hours for Democratic campaigns.

By the same token, Beck must be answerable for his ideas and their effects. He built a media empire that generates more than $32mn annually by speaking directly to people’s fears and the prejudices that motivate them. His rally to restore honor could have been mistaken for a whites-only affair, as the ethnic minorities who attended were few and far between. What did this absence of people of colour, on a day that was ostensibly intended to memorialise Martin Luther King Jr., say about his vision for the US?

Fox News’s most popular figure and The Daily Show and Colbert Report heads are masquerading as entertainers. They may not be seeking office, but they are leveraging political influence and winning hearts and minds whether they think they can operate responsibility free or not. They are not dabbling in the political, but what they do is political even if the commercial underpinning is obvious during each advertising break that interrupts their programmes.

Their abilities to bring crowds to Washington DC in the hundreds of thousands, demonstrates that their political pull is real. Beck’s marriage with the Tea Party fuels its candidates forward. His rally featured actual political candidates. Stewart’s rally had the president’s endorsement. Obama mentioned it several times in public and appeared as a guest on The Daily Show the week before the rally.

Stewart cannot get away with criticising counter-productive punditry when his own influence is now more potent than most pundits.

Pretending to just be an entertainer dangerously hides real influence. 

Behind Beck’s elementary logic and even more elementary use of a blackboard is the scary power of fear-mongering. History has shown that is not just entertainment.

As his advertising and subscription revenues show, the market privileges passing off politics as entertainment. Political entertainment impacting public opinion, without any real accountability, is just one more example of commercial power shaping American democracy.

I understand this argument is a recipe for killing fun, for taking the laughter out of their shows, especially in political times where escapism is tempting. With the US at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a dismal economy leaving people desperate, these times are a bit too serious to take so lightly. 

Humour and satire have their place, of course, and are great avenues of creative expression. But when they mobilise so many and impact wider political debates, they are something other than just entertainment. Neither those who are politically enlightened nor those who are populist scoundrels should be allowed to operate freely under the guise of entertainment.

Will Youmans is a blogger at KABOBfest.com

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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