Stewart-Colbert Event a Gateway to Political Activism
Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Stephen Colbert’s “March to Keep Fear Alive” may seem all satire and silliness, but Lauren Feldman, assistant professor of communication at American University, says the event stands to make a serious impact by providing a gateway to greater political engagement.
“The appeal of Stewart and Colbert will draw people to the National Mall who might not otherwise turn out at a political rally or participate in politics in traditional ways," said Feldman, whose research includes the political impact of late-night comedy. "Ultimately, Stewart and Colbert are comedians, and because they are billing the event as entertainment and not as a call to action, the rally could even be an attraction for people who don’t typically follow politics closely.”
Feldman’s 2008 study on the topic in the journal Political Communication found that people who watched the Tonight Show with Jay Leno or Late Night with David Letterman during the 2004 presidential primaries were more likely pay attention to campaign coverage on traditional network and cable news.
Feldman says the Stewart-Colbert event has the potential to reach people far beyond those flocking to Washington, D.C., October 30. Satellite events in cities across the country, including Chicago and Seattle, and buzz in social and mainstream media will likely lead to a “snowball” effect, drawing even more people into the process than the D.C. event would on its own.
“Media coverage of the event, which likely will be widespread across entertainment-oriented as well as traditional news outlets, will help make the midterm elections more top-of-mind to citizens who may be on the fence about whether they’ll vote on Election Day,” Feldman said.
Aside from its broader appeal to citizens who are traditionally less-active in politics, the event may especially stand to appeal to people who currently consider themselves the politically disgruntled: moderates.
“The event is a way to remind people who are not necessarily at the extreme ends of the political spectrum that they still have a voice in politics,” Feldman pointed out. “The rally is a participatory outlet for people who are fed up with partisan politics; with the anger on both sides of the political aisle; with the gridlock in Washington; and with the mainstream media’s complicity in letting the far right and far left dominate the political conversation.”
Satire May Energize Electorate
Two years after young people overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama, predictions are that they will not be turning out for the 2010 midterm elections. The Democratic Party is spending $50 million to get young voters and minorities back to the polls and President Obama has hosted numerous events to engage young voters, including a forum on MTV.
“One of the reasons young people are relatively uninterested in the midterm elections is their frustration with partisan politics, as well as their disappointment given what they perceive to be President Obama’s failure to deliver on the ‘change’ he promised in 2008,” Feldman explained.
Some Democratic politicians reportedly are concerned that the event could interfere with the final push to get Democratic voters to the polls, both by drawing people who might otherwise be out canvassing in their local communities and by pulling media coverage away from President Obama and other high profile Democrats the weekend before November 2.
But a laugh at the expense of politicians, whether Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, or other independents, could be just the jolt voters need, says Feldman—especially young people, who make up the majority of Stewart’s and Colbert’s audiences.
“It’s important to remember that while Stewart and Colbert are entertainers, they entertain about politics,” Feldman said. “The event and the message behind it offer an alternative to cynicism and disengagement, and will hopefully help remind people why it is critical to vote.”