“I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”
This could be the citizens’ rallying cry in Washington D.C. this October, when Daily Show host John Stewart will host the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” an event he announced this past Thursday on his show. The rally’s goal is to bring together what Stewart considers to be the normal Americans — not defined by liberalness or conservativeness — but instead by a tendency to be more moderate than the most extreme left and right. Given the recession and recent frequency of unruly protest, this rally could be exactly what America needs.
To explain why, I have to begin with a discussion about political polarization.
Two summers ago when I had an internship with a local Democratic Party organization in the suburbs of Chicago, one piece of merchandise that we sold to constituents was a children’s book called “Why Daddy is a Democrat” by Jeremy Zilber. I don’t remember what the book said word for word, but the text read something along the lines of, “Daddy is a Democrat because he values sharing, treating people kindly and making the world fair for everyone.” This book’s message has clear implications — Republicans don’t value sharing and have no interest in treating people kindly or fairly.
It’s easy to see how a child can read this book and gather that Republicans are bad people. But this book is only one example of the type of messages people receive about individuals on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.
Adults are also susceptible to such messages about the opposing party. I have a friend who frequently jokes that this country should have let the South go when it had the chance — implying that the entire population of the South consists of conservative hicks.
This sort of thinking about the opposing party is absurd. Not all conservatives are as inflammatory as the pundits at Fox News. Not all liberals are impractical hippies. But why do so many people think the opposite is true? The answer is complicated. In the past decade, politicians in the two major political parties have become more polarized, and academics argue whether the same can be said about the parties’ constituencies. There are many causes of polarization, but this column will focus on one: the media.
Media frequently reports on the most extreme constituents in both parties, adding to the perception that constituents of the two parties are very, very different. This is primarily because media outlets have an incentive to create conflict in order to make more money. For example, in his book “Culture War? The Myth of Polarized America,” Stanford Prof. Morris Fiorina cites a Newsweek article about gun control in which the reporter selectively interviews citizens with the most extreme positions in order to exaggerate the theme of polarization — ultimately skewing readers perception of the opposing parties’ supporters. And this is a mild example in comparison to other media outlets, most notably cable news shows.
Surprising as it may be, I think “The Daily Show” may be one of the most visible outlets that regularly acts to circumvent media’s polarizing abilities.
If you aren’t a frequent “Daily Show” viewer, you may be under the impression that Stewart is merely a comedian and fake pundit. But within his comedy, Stewart makes real arguments about politics, and perhaps his most concentrated attack has been on an alarmist media. In 2004, he went on the debate show “Crossfire” and told the hosts that they were doing America a disservice by engaging in “political theater” instead of real debate. Similar themes can be found constantly on his show.
If successful, Stewart’s D.C. rally could take his initiative against media alarmism to new levels. The goal of the event is to show that the media’s portrayal of a deeply divided America is unrepresentative of the true population. To do this, Stewart hopes to bring out more moderate citizens who are less likely to be found at typical rallies — or at least people who aren’t crazy enough to make the news when they attend said rallies. While it is pretty clear that Stewart is responding to conservative political commentator Glenn Beck’s rally in August, Tea Partiers are not being exclusively targeted. Stewart was sure to criticize the extreme Left in his announcement of the event as well.
When we assume the worst about citizens with different political leanings than us, we have to ask ourselves where our perceptions come from. The media often plays a strong role in crafting those views. Stewart’s rally — while partially a comedic media stunt — could invoke a serious message with enough support. I think a rally against irrationality is something we can all get behind — Republican or Democrat.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at email@example.com