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How Political Is the Rally for Sanity?

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Before anyone opines on The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear this weekend, it’s worth noting that the thing hasn’t actually, um, happened; there have been an awful lot of judgments made on an event whose content we don’t even know yet. So I can only judge the event on the basis of what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have said about it (that it’s a reaction to overheated political rhetoric, or for Colbert, a satirical embrace of it) and on the basis of the shows they’ve been producing nightly for years.

For instance: is this a joke, or are they serious about this issue? To which I say: yes and yes. Frankly I have to wonder if the people asking even watch Stewart and Colbert. They’re not apathetic cut-ups who make goofy gags about headlines. They’re satirists, which is to say they make jokes out of things they take seriously.

The other big question: is this a political rally? Well, yeah. But probably not in the sense the questioners mean.

There’s a distinction between “political” (concerned with the issues facing the country and how we try to resolve them through the system) and “partisan” (attempting to help one specific party or candidate win). Increasingly in this country we don’t recognize a difference between the two or believe that you can be the former without being the latter. (That’s part of the point of the rally, really.)

Based on what Stewart and Colbert have said, though, the focus of the rally is the ugliness of political debate: the Hitler comparisons, the head-stomping, the conspiracy theories, the assumption that your opponent is also your enemy and must always be assumed to be acting in bad faith. In announcing the rally, Stewart said that the maybe 15% or 20% of Americans who act this way dominate the conversation and the media, crowding out the other 80% or so, who could probably agree on reasonable compromises but don’t have time to obsess on partisan warfare. To paraphrase Yeats, the worst are full of passionate intensity; the best “have shit to do.”

Now, you can call this idea Pollyannaish. (Or you could say that it’s arguing a point everyone agrees on—yet it seems to have gotten plenty of folks worked up regardless.) And you can point out that Stewart and Colbert, liberals themselves, have been calling this kind of behavior out particularly in conservatives like Glenn Beck (who held his own Restoring Honor rally). But this concept is also pretty much the point behind Stewart and Colbert’s shows and public appearances for years. Stewart blasted Crossfire for enabling partisan rhetoric in 2004; Colbert built an entire show on “truthiness,” i.e., the idea that gut passion has overtaken intellect.

That’s a political idea, plain and simple–it’s about politics and how we conduct it. (Stewart himself has confused the point, by the way, telling Larry King that the rally is “not political.”) But is the rally partisan, which is to say, held three days before the midterms, is it specifically intended to help out one side, presumably the Democrats?

I don’t think so. I’m not a mind-reader. I can only go on what the hosts have said and done on their shows. Maybe Jon Stewart has some secret idea that collecting his fans in D.C. will rally the Democratic base and keep Nancy Pelosi holding her gavel. But if so, it seems an awfully dumb way to do it. Democratic activists have begged Stewart to cancel the rally, arguing that it would take the spotlight from non-comedic rallies, and that it would siphon off politically interest young people that the party usually counts on to volunteer and get out the vote. (Stewart’s response, as I’ve noted: “Tough shit. I don’t have to do their job.”) And for every Daily Show fan the rally fires up, it could motivate two Glenn Beck fans who see a bunch of showbiz liberals laughing at them again.

My guess is that Stewart is clued-in enough to know that, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation that he wants to make himself a political player. Part of the interpretation, I think, comes from the fact that the rally is now being covered by the political press corps, which is simply conditioned to automatically see all politics in a partisan frame. Political reporters spend 99% of their time covering partisans with partisan agendas. It’s only natural that they can’t see a point to holding a rally in Washington near the first Tuesday in November other than to influence an election.

Of course, rallies are defined by the people who show up. Statistically, Stewart’s audience leans Democratic–that’s why President Obama showed up–and their signs and rhetoric might be less moderate (in tone) than Stewart and Colbert’s. (Some activist groups are even co-ordinating signs for their members to bring to the rally.) Certainly Democrats and sympathizers are going to try to glom onto the event to try to help the party; Arianna Huffington is busing people to the rally en masse, and others are trying to convince attendees to do phone banks and other get-out-the-vote volunteer work. (Though even if that happens, the rally could well keep as many or more people away from GOTV volunteering that they otherwise would have had time for.)

Stewart and Colbert and set the agenda, but they can’t pick the crowd. Maybe the ralliers will be a group of well-behaved people out to have a high-mindedly good time. Maybe they’ll turn out to be largely partisans out to make a point for their side before Election Day. Or maybe they’ll include a rowdy minority–let’s say 15% or so–who act out and get all the attention. In which case: point proven.

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