Advice to Democrats III


I have it from a reliable source that the team at Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show is despondent. Stewart and his team thought their satire, most of it directed against the Republicans, would help encourage large numbers of young voters to support the Democrats. In fact, their youthful demographic failed to make an impressive showing at the polls.

This is a puzzle. The Daily Show is almost certainly the wittiest thing on television. But it was also, in the weeks before the election, a platform for mockery. Night after night, Stewart held up Republicans to ridicule. This should have made the show a formidable platform for recruiting the Democratic vote from a constituency that a) does not vote enough and b) could have tipped the balance in this very close election.

So what happened? There is one dark possibility. It is that Stewart actually succeeded in driving his viewers away from the voting booth, not towards it. It may be that this nightly ridicule had the effect not of discrediting the Republicans but the idea that Washington can serve the people’s will. In short, Stewart’s show may have discredited the office as much as did the incumbent.

Don’t get me wrong. Satire is a good and noble thing. No democracy can survive without it. (And we must worry that a newly sanctimonious Right might move against it.) But here’s the thing that Democrats do not seem always to get: that their absolute presumption of certainty that the other is self serving and corrupt makes the electoral system look like a school for scoundrels. There’s a problem here. The absolute refusal to accept that the political other might sometimes have a point, that the Republicans might have ideas, that the opposition sometimes deserves a thoughtful response…all of this begins to corrode politics itself. (Post post insert, with a hat tip to Ennis: I do not mean to suggest that Republicans and other on the Right have not done a good deal of corruding of their own. They have. And no one does certainty and self congratulation quite like the Right.)

It’s an irony to match the one noted Friday. When you act as if the opposition is completely corrupt and craven, you create a little piece of cognitive dissonance. You leave the viewer-voter, to ask “If you’re so right, how can it be you are not in office? There must be something wrong with the office.” In sum, the Democrats’ politics of smugness and certitude may end up demolishing the credibility of the very institution they wish to run.

I’m not sure this is true. I’m just saying.


Wikipedia entry for Jon Stewart here

30 thoughts on “Advice to Democrats III

  1. Steve Portigal

    Incidents like the Crossfire episode and the flurry of election-timed and America-the-book timed PR appearances has given me the (perhaps obvious) clarity that Jon’s target is more the media than the Republicans. Or am I just believing his statements over his actions?

  2. Ennis

    Grant — if your arguments are true, do they apply equally to the other side? Do the Republicans win by being less condescending, more open-minded, less elitist, and less sarcastic?

    I’m doing the social scientist thing here — you might well be right, but I feel like everything you’re criticising the Dems for the other side does in spades. If people’s reactions are assymetical, that’s fine too, but that needs to be part of your model.

  3. Grant

    Ennis, funny you should say that, I was just thinking, as I potter around post post, how one sided my criticism sounds. Indeed, the Republicans are equally and sometimes more quilty of reducing “debate” to moral pronouncement. And I was just thinking how to fix this. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, I don’t know. It seems to me that the target was more Republican than media, and the latter especially when it fails to criticize the former. Thanks, Grant

  4. Grant

    Ennis, There, I’ve made a change, with a hat tip to you. Not entirely elegant, but, hey, good enough for television. Thanks, Grant

  5. Scotty B

    The problem with the Daily Show was that because its satire was aimed so lopsidedly at Republicans the show was no longer seen as a free agent, but more like an inside-the-beltway party hack.

  6. Grant

    Scotty, that’s the thing. We are all lopsided. Now to build a new middle ground. Civility schmility. (I believe that’s the phrase.) It’s enough merely to listen carefully and respond carefully Thanks, Grant

  7. Brian Hawkins

    It may be that this nightly ridicule had the effect not of discrediting the Republicans but the idea that Washington can serve the people’s will. In short, Stewart’s show may have discredited the office as much as did the incumbent.

    Grant, you say that as though it were a bad thing!

  8. Grant

    Brian, I thought you were the one who quote Kyle Hampton at Pathologically Speaking approvingly when he said:

    If there really is such a great cultural divide in the country…and let’s face it–a 51-48% election is a far cry from a mandate of any sort…wouldn’t we all be better served by trying to find a way to coexist with different value systems, rather than both “sides” expending all that time and capital on the sisyphean task of…I don’t know…changing the fundamental values of roughly half of the population???

    You’re not suggesting that we change the fundamental values of roughly all of the population? Thanks, Grant

  9. Brian Hawkins

    He he. Actually, I said that…but I’ll take a quote any way I can get it 😉

    Anyway…my point was sort of tongue-in-cheek, though I AM a prickly enough libertarian that I tend to view anything that undermines faith the in the presidency or just government in general as a net positive. Kind of the same logic by which Reason picked Richard Nixon as one of its “Heros of Freedom” a few months back.

    BTW–thanks for reading!

  10. dbt

    I watch the daily show more or less religiously (I’ve been avoiding the news since nov 2, just for peace of mind and to get some time to think) for 5 years, and I can tell you that their primary target is the media. They obviously have a personal bias towards democrats, and they make no effort to hide it, but they primarily mock the hyper-patriotism and idiotic one-hand/other-hand type reporting, as well as the television newsmedia’s fascination with war-symbols without real war-reporting.

  11. J. R. P.

    As part of the young voter demographic, I think your analysis is just plain wrong.

    Simply put, John Stewart was just being a d*ck during this election cycle. A funny d*ck, usually, but a d*ck nonetheless.

    He is incapable of persuading anybody with a 10th grade education (or above) to change their views on any subject.

    And, simply put, his audience consist of a lot of Reagan-generation moderate conservatives (South Park Conservatives), who are simply capable of laughing at themselves.

    His popularity has to do with the fact that’s he funny, not that he is left-of-center.

  12. justdance2

    I think Stewart’s influence on the election was affected by the fact that whenever he got a tough question from the right (on O’Reilly and Crossfire) he retreated behind the “I’m just a comedian and my lead in show is puppets making prank calls” line.

  13. Grant

    D B T: but it always seems to be the media’s treatment of something usually stupid from the Republicans. Thanks, Grant

    J R P: you may be right but the Stewart team devoutly hoped otherwise. As did all the other celebrities who sought to “rock the vote.” Thanks, Grant

    bugscawfey: very well said, your loggorhea welcome here anytime. Thanks, Grant

    Justdance2: interesting, I missed that one, no point changing horses in the middle of an election stream. Even comedians shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways. Thank you, Grant

  14. dave rogers

    “would help encourage large numbers of young voters to support the Democrats. In fact, their youthful demographic failed to make an impressive showing at the polls.”

    I’m curious as to what result would qualify as “an impressive showing.” By most accounts, this was an impressive showing by voters in the 18-29 age bracket, and they were the only age demographic that went for Kerry, 55 to 44 %.

    I note that ennis has already pointed out your one-sidedness, and I’m not persuaded that your effort at being “fair and balanced” is anything more than a discreetly affected rhetorical fig leaf. Just as satire is most often directed at the group most obviously perceived as the one in power, your recitation of a litany of perceived flaws, er, criticism, er, I mean, “advice” is mostly directed to the party out of power. The losers. One almost gets the impression you believe “the opposition is completely corrupt and craven.”

    Yes, this will promote reasoned civil discourse.

    I’m not sure this is true. I’m just saying.

    We have a long way to go.


  15. Grant

    David, thanks for the data, but I must say it’s discouraging not to be taken at one’s word. The correction was sincere. I would say it was actually devout. On the one hand, we might admire your exigetical skills, spotting insincerity is always a good thing. On the other, is this not precisely the way the debate breaks down: when we claim to “see through” attempts at balance and insist that we know better? Eesh. There’s no winning this one. Not if all balance is dismissed as disingenuity. If that’s the word…and the spelling. Probably not. But thanks, Grant

  16. fouroboros

    Bugs, excellent cite, perhaps the last time any political party hewed to principle at the expense of power.

    But it was no memoriam to Kennedy, rather ,it was the result of an internal struggle for LBJ. Nothern liberals thought he was a simple redneck, uncommitted to the core of the civil rights premise. This troubled him and the CRA was personal, a way of reconciling his ambition, legacy and idealism. The trouble wan’t just his: Upon signing it, he said in effect, “There. It’s done. We’ve just lost the South for a generation.”

    Judging from all the red splashed around, looks like he was being conservative (hah!), especially after Democrats strapped on the afterburners of feminism and a policy-based gay rights movement.

    Funny thing about morality. Everybody talks about it; and about other people’s, but it’s the practice that gets you crucified, ostracized, or, in the case of Democrats’ continued egalitarian idealism, played for a sucker by the Grand Old Party of Morality.

    Source: Taking Charge: The Johnsion White House Tapes, Michael Beschloss.

  17. dave rogers

    Well, color me skeptical when the first words one reads are “I have it from a reliable source.” Perhaps my irony threshold is set too low. It seems we are no better off in the “blogosphere” when would-be authorities must rely on anonymous “reliable sources.” Yes, this is something different.

    In your first post, you quoted a number of unhappy democrats almost out of context. I say “almost” because there simply was no other context, their candidate lost and they were unhappy. But to characterize their emotional responses to this loss as indicative of some intellectual or perceptual deficiency is asking a bit much I think. I was left with the impression you were offering little more than a little glib posturing.

    I could offer a quote from a woman in Minnesota who voted for Bush because Kerry was divorced. There’s a Republican voter with a keen mind for “ideas.”

    As an anthropologist, I’m curious as to how you see people making decisions.

    I’m an interested lay person. I’m not an academic, and I’m an authority on very little. From the research that I’ve done, surveying some small fraction of the incredible quantity of information available to the interested public, I conclude that most of our capacity to “reason with” or “persuade” another about anything on as broad a scale as a national election for an office that addresses an enormous variety of issues is nigh onto impossible.

    My impression is that most people have some emotional response to what is presented to them, and then reason backward from their feelings, often poorly. I think most campaigns understand this implicitly, if not explicitly though I rather expect they understand it quite explicitly; and so the vast preponderance of their effort is directed at manufacturing feelings, trusting that the voter will rationalize whatever “reasons” they require to minimize cognitive dissonance and have an abstract “rationale” that is congruent with their feelings.

    This is not to say that all emotions are irrational. For the most part, they are rational enough. But they are not the kinds of, by comparison, precision instruments our higher-order cognitive functions are. Functions that are essential to conduct the kind of analytical discussion of “ideas” you understandably wish to encourage. If you aren’t familiar with him, I recommend Dr. Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error.

    I rather expect that most of the people responsible for the campaigns on both sides understand the “ideas” of their opponents quite well. I also expect they believe they are largely quite beside the point when it comes to winning elections. The point is not to debate the merits of a doctrine of preemptive war (How hard is that even for academics?) No, it’s to create a climate of fear that makes preemptive war seem justified.

    I think what we are witnessing are the effects of people having their emotions expertly manipulated, seemingly with less and less restraint by the opposing parties. (“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?”) Some would have us believe this is nothing new in American politics and it’s always been this ugly. I’m not sure that’s the case, but I know human nature remains the one constant throughout history and so I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. What hasn’t been constant throughout history is the “bandwidth,” the number of channels emotional messages can be sent through that can reach us at almost every waking moment of the day.

    I’m reminded of the old saying that, “The key to success in life is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    I’m also reminded of another saying I’m much more fond of, but far less sanguine about its chances of being embraced: “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.”

    Forgive me if I’m wrong when I say I find much of your “advice” to be too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

  18. Grant

    Dave, the source is good, but I must repect and protect the anonymity of my sources. So sue me. Or jail me. The quotes from “know your enemy” are from the New York Times, so they are solid. And surely you can hear a dismissive tone. Maybe its just my anthropological ear, but when people use language like this, I am quite prepared to leap to a conclusion. Because its not much a leap at all. More than that, it is fully consistent with the sort of things I hear from others. But, hey, where would we be in the world of politics if we took people at their word? Thanks, Grant

  19. LK

    grant et al:

    interesting points all, re the ‘other’-ing and the opinion smothering…just wondering if perhaps there’s a media studies angle here (of course i would wonder that); is it possible that these same youth voters who live a media-soaked existence of constant contact and connectivity are having difficulty distinguishing between the reality of politics and the entertainment/comedy framework in which it is being presented? i’m not suggesting they don’t know the difference between the two in as much as i’m suggesting that they might have become inured to an atmosphere of mockery (simpsons, south park, stewart, SNL, even mo rocca appeared on CNN during the campaign); and at the end of the day making the connection between the satire on the screen and the consequences for their lives is not necessarily an obvious or urgent one.

    the article below is from the SF chronicle, printed the morning after, and chock full of stats re youth voters in 2004 versus 2000 and how so little changed…despite springsteen, puffy, the daily show, iraq, etc. clearly mocking the vote does not rock the vote.


    Young voters preferred Kerry, but turnout wasn’t high

    Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
    Wednesday, November 3, 2004

    A massive effort to bring young voters to the polls resulted in youth overwhelmingly supporting Democratic nominee John Kerry over President Bush Tuesday night — but not in the numbers anticipated.

    While young voters split among Bush and Democrat Al Gore four years ago, 56 percent of voters aged 18-29 preferred Kerry Tuesday, according the CNN’s exit polls. But even though more than 1.4 million new young voters registered to vote in this election, the youth block comprised roughly the same percentage of voters that it did four years ago, according to Associated Press exit polls.

    “We won’t know their impact on this election until all the votes are counted in Ohio and Florida,” said Barbara O’Connor, professor of political communication at Sacramento State University. “They registered, they were active and they were involved. But beyond that, we don’t know.”

    Recruited by cultural icons ranging from punk rock icons to hip-hop impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs, and fearing a military draft, young voters were courted as a serious swing bloc from early in the campaign. They flocked to Kerry campaign appearances by rock idol Bruce Springsteen in the last weeks of the campaign, and showed intense interest in a Bush-bashing video by hip-hop star Eminem that was on the Internet over the past week.

    Many organizations, from Internet-based to music-related organizations like, tailored efforts to reach out to the “cell phone voters” — young people who asserted that they were being undercounted by pollsters because they use cell phones instead of land lines.

    “There were a bunch of groups who said that the swing vote wasn’t necessarily a bunch of old ladies in Ohio, but young people,” said Dan Droller, a co-founder of Music for America, a year-old effort based in Redwood City to engage young voters.

    Mike McCurry, senior adviser to Kerry, said young people affected the election by participating in much larger numbers than before. When young people pay attention to a campaign, he said, they force candidates to think and respond different.

    “Candidates must talk about the future,” McCurry told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Tuesday.

    This fall, polls from the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center and MTV all predicted that that this would be the year that the long- ballyhooed youth vote would finally make a difference in the presidential race. The youth voter pool is immense — 40.6 million Americans are between 18 and 29, comprising 1 in 5 eligible voters — but it has rarely been a factor in the 32 years since 18-year-olds have been eligible to vote. Four years ago, just 37 percent of 18-24-year-olds voted.

    But despite all the efforts, an Associated Press exit poll survey found that fewer than 1 in 10 voters Tuesday were 18 to 24, about the same proportion of the electorate as in 2000.

    Speaking from Las Vegas after spending Tuesday getting voters to the polls on behalf of the youth-based League of Pissed Off Voters, San Francisco resident Seiji Carpenter said, “From what I saw on the ground, there were a ton of people. The Christian Coalition got their people out and that was counter-balanced by groups like the League.

    “No matter what happens, young people will be engaged,” Carpenter said. “If Bush wins, they’ll be outraged. If Kerry wins, they’ll be inspired.”

    CNN’s exit polls Tuesday showed that many new voters were lining up behind Kerry. Seventeen percent of those casting ballots Tuesday did not vote in 2000; 59 percent of those newcomers voted for Kerry.

    Not that they loved Kerry. Twenty-six percent of respondents in the CNN poll said they voted against a candidate rather than for one. And 74 percent voted for Kerry.

    Many young voters started out as Bush bashers.

    “They clearly identified their issues and what they found was that they were against Bush,” said Kelly Young, executive director of 21st Century Democrats, which connected with 100,000 young voters in Ohio. The organization’s Young Voter Project connected with 220,000 young voters in Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon and Nevada. “It may have started out anti-Bush, but after the debates, when they saw Kerry, they were definitely more for him.”

    While many young voters lined up behind Ralph Nader four years ago, the independent Nader gathered only 1 percent of the vote Tuesday.

    “Four years ago, people thought both the parties were the same, but people didn’t want to make that mistake again,” said Evan Hutchison, Ohio state director for Vote Mob, which contacted 110,000 young voters in the Midwestern state.

    Many youth organizers said their peers were most concerned about the war. Either they worried about a possible draft or they knew someone who had been sent to Iraq.

    “People were really concerned about Iraq,” said Jenny Kane, 27, an organizer with Driving votes. org, which organized 1,400 trips to swing states.

    And in upstate New York, Colgate University sophomore Brandon Weiss, 19, of Walnut Creek waited anxiously for the outcome. Weiss, as a Democratic National Committee canvasser this summer, raised upwards of $2,000 a week for Kerry’s cause going door to door in the Bay Area this summer.

    “We understood that we could make a difference,” he said. “Among my friends, I saw a definite understanding and a duty there.”

  20. dave rogers

    “But, hey, where would we be in the world of politics if we took people at their word? Thanks, Grant”

    And what tone should I be hearing here?

    Thanks for addressing my “ideas.” I gather I’m to take you at your word, but not hold you to it. Sounds like politics as usual to me.

    Sorry to have wasted your time.

  21. Grant

    Dave, I don’t believe I gave any worse than I got. No rules of politesse were injured in the writing of my post. Thanks, Grant

    Leora, splendid post, as usual. So, the argument is that some voters lump politics with everything else that gets “sent up” in the irony rich media stream and so dismiss it? Interesting. And plausible. And tragic. But surely a real presidential debate and the SNL treatment are pretty distinquishable. But I see what you’re saying. Who said, everything is politics? Now it’s all is satire. Yikes. And thanks for the article. Normally, I discourage the recitation of any sort of supporting evidence on this blog but this was truly illuminating. Great find. But then we here at This Blog Sits At know that nothing escapes you. Thanks very much, Grant

  22. Mimiru

    Hmm. Well considering that the same percentage voted in 2004 as in 2000 and that the number of votoers increased by something like 15 million, and that the population of younger voters is (slightly) less than the generation before them, I calculated something like 2.5 million more young voters coming out to the polls in raw numbers.

  23. Scott McArthur

    John Stewart ain’t got nothing to do with nothing. He’s funnny and as an audience you suspect he is right about the scummy republican loving MSM. (and if they ain’t gop loving they’re gop intimidated)

    Grant Grant Grant.
    Give me an anthropoligical explanation of the divide between the cities and the suburb/rural areas, as expressed in the 2004 presidential breakdown. Is creativity and excellence no longer in the cities? What can we say of a political force whose ennemy is the people of the city? What does this mean for America?

  24. Nigel Mellish


    I found something to be interesting about your above post:

    “Scotty, that’s the thing. We are all lopsided. Now to build a new middle ground. Civility schmility. (I believe that’s the phrase.) It’s enough merely to listen carefully and respond carefully Thanks, Grant”

    Isn’t “building a middle ground” almost the very charter of 2 party politics? It seems redundant. I’ve been on this earth for 34 years now, and as far as I can remember, the parties have been cantankerous, the politics vicious, and the media sensationalist. This last item is the one I’d like to focus on.

    The media, and the move from 5-7pm nightly news coverage followed by babes in hot pants on CHiPs towards 24×7 overexposure has exaggerated the divide or it’s importance. The past two elections have been much less “historical” than most people believe, as our knowledge of US history (as an aggregate nation) is so underwhelming, and our exposure to constant sensationalism so great, that each “special report” exaggerates the issue to the point of some poor sod killing himself at Ground Zero, as if Kerry’s election would have meant a bed of roses for the future. To be frank, in terms of domestic policy, the country has been at a stalemate for a long time:

    1.) Clinton, by all means, was a great leader. But his presidency accomplished, what, exactly? Is it reasonable to think that Kerry would have accomplished more even if the Democrats had made gains in the legislative branch?

    2.) What then, exactly, has Mr. Bush done to move the country to the right? Sold some mining and drilling rights (not like Clinton didn’t), not joined Kyoto (ditto) and made it harder for people to put boobies on TV. Oh, and a tax cut for his buddies. What has he accomplished really? Nothing substantial outside of foreign policy.

    So because there aren’t real domestic issues to discuss, the media creates giants of windmills.

    In fact, take away 9/11 and the war, and what do you think would be headlining right now? What would Kerry or Bush really offered that were substantially dissimilar? Where the tax cuts break?

    If you REALLY want to take a look at the realism of the stagnation of domestic policy, just ask yourself the following:

    If you’re on the left, ask “If Clinton couldn’t get it passed or wouldn’t support the cause with anything more than rhetoric, what chance would Kerry have?”

    If you’re on the right, ask “If Reagan couldn’t get it passed/overturned or wouldn’t support the cause with action, what chance does Bush have?”

    Now foreign policy, that’s a different matter all together….

  25. Grant

    Scott, David Brooks has an interesting piece on this question in the New York Times today. Sounds like his book on the topic of the cityless city has got all this mapped. He complains that he had a very hard time get the political parties interested in the phenomenon, with a couple of exceptions. Indeed, he complains that we city dwellers ignored his book because we fail to see the importance of the point you raise. Thanks, Grant

  26. Grant

    Nigel, excellent point, it does seem like parties have always been oppositional more than consensual. But it may be that we have moved the goal posts. The the right is farther right and the left farther left. And this would seem to me to argue the importance of a new middle ground where some of us huddle together and try to whisper out of conversation under the rhetorical fireworks taking place above. Thanks, Grant

  27. lindenen

    I stopped watching the Daily Show because it was too partisan. What I liked about the show was that they were equal opportunity offenders, but they morphed into party hacks.

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