Sunday, October 31, 2010

The new silent majority

We have been told that the nation is swept up in anti-incumbent fervor, and that we are mad, mad, mad. Except that, by and large, we are really not all that mad. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 21 percent of Americans are angry at the federal government. And the term "anti-incumbent fervor" loses a bit when you learn that, according to political scientist Michael Robinson, 98 percent of all congressional incumbents who ran in this year's primaries prevailed.

An event that took place on the National Mall on Saturday, October 20, presented a more serious reflection of our collective state of mind. Comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally in Washington, D.C. to Restore Sanity. The crowd appeared to exceed organizers' expectations, spilling past the boundaries set for the rally. Organizers estimated attendance at about 250,000; while many in the media estimated it to be around 220k.

There were satellite rallies going on in 47 states and six foreign countries. Add these numbers to the huge attendance of the Washington D.C. rally and you get 100s and 100s of thousands. Once the numbers are tallied, Jon Stewart may get the "million moderate march" he wanted with a few people brandishing signs that read, "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."

It seems the majority of people want sanity.

While the audiences of the two comedians undoubtedly lean somewhat to the left, Stewart presented the rally as a chance for the low-key middle to come together – those who do not care to shout or call names and who do not think we have Nazis or Socialists in charge of our government.

As described on The Rally to Restore Sanity Web site: "We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler – or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."

Alan Gitelson, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, compared the sizable group of people who are neither angry nor partisan as the new "silent majority". Gitelson said. "The tea party is clearly to the right.... And then you have progressives on the other side, and then there is this large center. The rally that Colbert and Stewart are doing is kind of part of a balancing act."

Some on the right have portrayed the rallies as a last-ditch effort by liberals to rile up Democratic voters before an election in which conservative candidates clearly have the enthusiasm edge and are poised to win a sizable number of congressional seats. That fits nicely in much of their conspiracy-laden, "us vs. them" talk that comes from a swath of Tea Party leaders, but I believe what Stewart and Colbert are doing what their shows do so well: hold a mirror up to our society, point out hypocrisies and silliness and have a good laugh.

Jeffrey Juris, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, said the rallies go beyond political comedy, and should be taken seriously.

"The point of the rallies, and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more generally, is to use humor to shine a light on the contradictions, foibles and absurdities of our political culture in order to provoke critical reflection, particularly among young people who might not otherwise take an interest in politics," Juris wrote in an analysis piece posted on the university's website. "In this case, the rallies go one step further and entail participatory action."

That is why these rallies have the chance to empower those who have sat back and watched the Tea Partiers and other crazies go insane over having a black Democratic president. Gitelson said Stewart and Colbert could be the right people to fire this group up, not in a way that would swing an election but enough to force politicians, once the election is over, to consider moderating their messages – maybe.

Colbert and Stewart’s shows delight in taking on both sides of the political aisle, relentlessly ferreting out inconsistencies and absurdities. An hour of Fox News and an hour of MSNBC can cancel each other out, but "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" routinely use razor-sharp satire to slice away artifice and give a clear, albeit comedic, picture of the news of the day. The real "we the people," the silent majority, tend to recognize this and enjoy laughing at Stewart’s comedy because it is funny yet true. The rallies today will likely be a reflection of that, a coming together of the more-or-less like-minded middle.

At the rally's conclusion, Stewart gave an impassioned speech about the caustic level of discourse in Washington, and its nasty echoes on cable television's 24-hour news cycle. Stewart said that noisy debate obscured a reality that he perceived: that everyone throughout the country had found a way to work together.

"...The only place we don't is here [pointing at the Capitol building] or on cable TV," said Stewart, putting much of the blame on Washington. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing...."

"...We live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies," Stewart said. "But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic ‘conflictinator’ did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder."

Despite its comedic origins, the rally is being taken seriously, garnering plugs from Oprah and even President Obama himself. And while these events will be unlikely to change the course of the country, they might serve to remind anyone with a far-left or far-right ideology that there are masses in the middle to contend with – the people who are reasonable – the new silent majority.

If only they would actually vote and cause the Tea Party to lose, then maybe the crazies would go home.