If cable comedian Jon Stewart gets more people to show up at his rally in Washington on Saturday than Fox News host Glenn Beck attracted to his event in August, does that make him a bigger deal? Will Stewart energize young, urban liberals the way Beck and other right-wing pundits have inspired elderly conservatives? And should anybody outside the relatively narrow fan base of these TV entertainers really care?
These are the questions that academics, pundits and political junkies are wrestling with this week as Stewart gears up for his "Rally to Restore Sanity," a joint event with cohort Stephen Colbert that is expected to attract thousands of participants at the National Mall. Particularly breathless have been opinion makers in the nation's capital, where no less than three commentators with the Washington Post or its online organs have urged Stewart to stay home or decried his rally. The fuss makes us think it's time for a rally to restore sanity to the punditocracy.
The Post's Anne Applebaum's "heart sank" when she learned of the event, because liberal groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plan to have a big presence at a rally that supposedly represents moderate political opinion. Does this mean liberals have co-opted the term "moderate," meaning an end to political centrism in America? Slate's Timothy Noah frets that by satirizing the "tea party" movement, Stewart and his fans will only make it stronger. And Carlos Lozada, editor of the Post's Outlook section, is concerned that by becoming a newsmaker instead of merely mocking newsmakers, Stewart will sabotage his credibility.
Stewart inspires this kind of overwrought analysis because his "Daily Show" on Comedy Central has morphed into something more than an ordinary comedy program; if that wasn't clear before this week, President Obama's decision to appear on the show as a guest Wednesday night erased all doubt. But that doesn't really make it a left-wing equivalent of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News, nor is Stewart the left's answer to Bill O'Reilly, Beck or Rush Limbaugh, who together have rallied the tea party. These conservative entertainers channel deep voter anger into political activism; Stewart channels annoyance into ironic laughter. The tea party is a genuine protest movement that aims to oust the current government, but it's not clear that Stewart's fans are protesting anything, except maybe the lack of civil behavior in public discourse (the closest thing to a "purpose" for Saturday's rally).
Crowds are coming to the Mall for a wide variety of reasons — some because they're tired of seeing Hitler mustaches drawn on posters of Obama, some because they want to express their opposition to Beck and his audience, and some, no doubt, because online mogul Arianna Huffington is providing free transportation — but we suspect most are coming simply because they want to be entertained. All in all, it's a broad group, and not the kind of coalition that makes for a sustainable political movement.
Saturday's event will probably resemble a standup comedy act more than a political rally, and the only thing it's likely to leave behind is trash on the capital's broad lawns (which Stewart is, sanely, mitigating by asking his fans to contribute to the Trust for the National Mall). Applebaum and her ilk should stop being heartsick, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show.