Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.
Back in December 2007, I was visiting my home state of Iowa. The presidential primary season was in full flower. It seemed like you couldn’t make a run to the supermarket without bumping into Hillary. My brothers and I joked with a neighbor (perhaps the strongest Biden supporter in the precinct) that the future vice president had been so ingratiating that we expected to see him come over soon to personally shovel the snow off her sidewalk.
That month, I went out to see both John Edwards and Barack Obama stump. Obama gave a solid speech, but he was far less specific and unrelenting in taking on corporate power than Edwards. Instead, Obama stuffed his speech with a lot of filler. He savored lines such as, “I don’t want to be president of Red State America or Blue State America. I want to be president of the United States of America.”
OK, I get it. The line got a lot of applause. But I had a hard time taking that stuff seriously. After all, what politician doesn’t claim to want to transcend the fray, work as a diligent bipartisan, and be a “uniter, not a divider”? Far from shaking up the political status quo in Washington, such appeals to high-minded moderation are an ingrained part of business as usual. I guess some people view these pledges as refreshing; I think they are pretty cynical.
Obama’s line came to mind when I saw that Jon Stewart—an undeniably funny guy and often brilliant satirist—has announced a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which is to take place in Washington the week before the midterm elections. His premise with the event (originally dubbed the “Million Moderates March”) is that politics has been taken over by the lunatic fringes on “both sides.” He believes that everyone needs to “be reasonable” and “take it down a notch.” As of this writing over 160,000 people on Facebook have vowed to attend, and the rally has garnered enthusiastic support from some political commentators as well.
I understand what Stewart is going for. Most Americans are fed up with the overheated hectoring of the political class. Glenn Beck’s posturing deserves to be challenged. And, sure, it’s possible to find examples of excess on both ends of the political spectrum. I’ve written against the “End of America” or “descent into fascism” thesis presented by folks like Naomi Wolf, and I strongly oppose 9/11 conspiracy theorists (although they are as likely to be right-leaning libertarians as leftists). Moreover, I didn’t like it when lefties carried signs comparing Dick Cheney or George W. Bush to Hitler; I think it reflected a lazy and unhelpful analysis. (On a side note, I’m currently in a debate at Dissent in which my interlocutors have invoked Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini in describing elements of the Latin American Left. I don’t think it has been particularly helpful in that instance either!)
But are the problems with American politics really a case of “both sides” equally going overboard? The Right has Fox News spouting extremist ideas about Obama on a 24/7 basis. The Left had…what? The people making equivalent claims about Bush tended to be very much on margins and got very little airplay.
My colleague Daniel Denvir, over at the Huffington Post, and Glenn Greenwald at Salon have each done a fine job of taking on what the latter author calls “the perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism.” The two pieces are well worth a read.
As Jon Stewart has it, the problem is “loud folks” and a tone of political debate that has become untempered: too many crazies yelling and screaming, comparing people they don’t like to Hitler.
But yelling is not just a matter of loud noise expelled through the human throat. It matters what’s being yelled. When it comes to the Republican Party—and Democratic fellow travelers—they are shouting in favor of corporate exploitation and war.
The Tea Party far right leans on made-up things, also known as lies—“ground zero” Mosque, illegal immigrants purposely causing highway accidents, death panels killing grandma—to win political power. The left has a different problem. We could have used a little more hysteria in recent years, as Wall Street robbed Main Street and the most powerful military on earth invaded multiple countries. Instead, a real anti-war movement never materialized to challenge one of this nation’s most violent presidencies. The people “who have shit to do” that you cited as your fan base, Jon Stewart, should have been out in the streets protesting and putting our 1960s radical parents to shame. But we’ve got “shit to do.” On the Internet, I suppose….
Ironically, the Rally to Restore Sanity repeats the liberal establishment’s greatest error: when Republicans go on attack—either at home with lies or abroad with bombs—hunker down somewhere in the middle and plead for civility. This young century’s great problems are a government abetting ruthless misadventure at Wall Street and the Pentagon, not rudeness and rank partisanship.
Leave aside the fact that, as Steve Benen correctly notes, Stewart’s examples of right-wing rhetorical excesses (Obama is a socialist who wasn’t born in the U.S. and hates America) are pervasive in the GOP, while his examples of left-wing excesses (Code Pink and 9/11 Truthers) have no currency (for better or worse) in the Democratic Party. The claim that Bush is “a war criminal” has ample basis, and it’s deeply irresponsible to try to declare this discussion off-limits, or lump it in with a whole slew of baseless right-wing accusatory rhetoric, in order to establish one’s centrist bona fides.
It’s admirable to want to apply the same standards to both sides, but straining to manufacture false equivalencies doesn’t accomplish that; sometimes, honestly applying the same standards to each side will result in a finding that one side, at least in that regard, is actually worse. When that’s the case, a person engaged in truly independent, non-ideological inquiry—rather than the pretense of such—will expressly acknowledge the imbalance, not concoct an equivalency where it doesn’t exist….
One other point about this fixation on the “tone” of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious—much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity—but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas; I don’t think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it’s usually the ideas themselves—not the tone used to express them—that are the culprits.
I’m not as hung up as Greenwald on defending the “Bush as war criminal” point. (I always thought that was a losing cause for the Left.) But I think Denvir’s argument about the Democrats’ tendency to run for the middle at the first sign of trouble is very important, as is Greenwald’s observation about the problems of fixating only on tone.
It was for this same reason that I was never particularly impressed by Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of Tucker Carlson on Crossfire.
Stewart argues that tone of the show was “hurting America” and that we need more “civilized discourse.” I’ll admit that it’s sort of satisfying to see him accuse Crossfire of “partisan hackery,” and that his refusal to play along with the hosts creates some rare and unsettling television. Then again, I’m not convinced his critique of the program is all too deep. Stewart says he wants less political “theater” and more “real debate.” But in my view he never gets beyond platitudes.
A lot of people loved the appearance, so I’m sure plenty of folks will disagree with me. Therefore, I’ll end with something around which we can all come together: in response to Stewart’s rally, fellow comedian Stephen Colbert announced that he would hold a counter-demonstration of his own. It’s called the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Now that one is simply brilliant.
Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.