So, a week later, I’m finally getting back to my promised continuing analysis of the Rally to Restore Sanity. Because I don’t want to belabor the experience too much, I think this will be my last post on the subject. Thus, I have to address the importance of the event – especially in terms of the political consequences and Stewart’s “serious” point.
In my initial impressions, I noted it it was a political rally above anything else. And I still believe this to be true, but this claim needs elaboration. Despite Democratic hopes, it wasn’t political in the sense of partisan, but instead in the sense of democratic – at least for Stewart’s part.
Of course, the crowd was much more political than Stewart tried to be. The signs often took explicit political positions – mocking the Tea Party and George W. Bush, offering support for Obama and his policies, or advocating policies oftheir own. Further, unlike many of the other signs, the signs advocating political positions often skirted into incivility, although many tried to remain funny. Also, the crowd wasn’t entirely young people. People across the age spectrum were represented, including younger and older adults, as well as families with children.
I attended the rally with 2 conservatives, a moderate, another liberal and myself. However, despite our differences in ideology and partisanship, we were all able to agree with the majority of Stewart’s arguments. His key arguments – of compromise, of resisting extremism and polarization – are hard to disagree with. And his speech was motivating, even if he didn’t mention voting explicitly. I think this omission was to attempt to avoid perceptions that he was adding to the partisan fighting he decried (as so much of his crowd was likely of a very liberal persuasion), but the intent was clear.
So who did Stewart blame for the current troubles? Well, the primary target was the partisanship of cable news networks – MSNBC and FOXnews especially. And while some in the media may have resented this claim (and politicians, especially Republicans, have continued their attack on this frequent target), there is at least some truth in what he said. But at the same time, the critique is oversimplified, as Keith Olbermann argued. Although cable news shows have risen in popularity, only 10-25% of the public regularly watches these shows. Of course, the counter-point is also correct – the very existence of these programs – which have in fact been shown to increase political polarization over time – can shift the way politics functions. Politicians know that their moves will be scrutinized by these sources, which is likely to alter their behaviors.
But recent events have proven even further the justice in Olbermann’s critiques. As part of the avoidance of partisanship, Stewart and Colbert did equate MSNBC and FOXnews. The recent suspension of Olbermann (even if for only two days) for not asking permission to donate money to Democratic candidates as required by the station demonstrates this, as Rachel Maddow does an excellent job of arguing. Furthermore, before his suspension, Olbermann had made a suspension himself – of the “Worst Person in the World” segment of his show. So at least one media outlet took Stewart’s critiques seriously, even if they didn’t agree with all of them.
Finally, the rally also demonstrated Stewart’s continuing power as a cultural phenomenon. His rally brought anestimated 215,000 people – more than Beck’s 87,000. Like 2004, when his criticism of Crossfire (on Crossfire) led the station to cancel the program, his criticism has led MSNBC to review its programming, or at least parts of it. The rally produced a deluge in social media, and, in the aftermath, Stewart‘s show topped Letterman’s and Leno’s in terms of viewers. It’s a fascinating question what Stewart could do next – and one people are already speculating about.
Ultimately, despite refusing to take on more explicitly political or partisan institutions – and I do agree that politicians got off rather easily compared to the media – Stewart’s rally was political. Although it may be difficult in the current environment of intense partisan divisions that Stewart critiqued, we must remember that political and partisan are not the same. Further, we need to embrace this distinction and strive to do as Stewart asked: work together to resolve problems.