Sanity vs. the Left

Before the guys from Mythbusters finished taking their seismic measurements, you could hear the professional haters whipping out their Macbooks to scold Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and their followers for something or the other. As in Colbert’s widely panned (and courageous) speech at the White House correspondents’ dinner, the media chafe at this kind of satire for good reason: they fail to see the humor when their own failures as journalists and keepers of the public trust are treated with scorn. (I’ll give you a second to catch your breath from laughing after that bit about “public trust.”)

Pundits on the Left were also quick to pooh-pooh the significance of the Rally to Restore Sanity, albeit for different reasons. Michael Kazin of the New Republic (that repository of high-minded New York liberal opinion) called the rally’s message of civility “a fine and pleasant thing,” but reminded readers that moderation alone could not inspire a movement. Adopting the tone of a patronizing theatre critic, he judged the event “only a moderate success, considering the wretched sound system… and the odd musical coupling of Ozzy Osbourne and Yusuf Islam” (how terribly gauche!) – and found its ideological content as wanting as its logistics. Stewart may treat moderation as both a means and an end, but Kazin seems to doubt whether it can serve either purpose.

Similarly, Chris Hedges complained that centrist liberals like Stewart use a fictional “phantom left” to position themselves as reasonable and moderate. Stewart erred by lumping together “Marxists actively subverting our Constitution” with “racists and homophobes” like Rush Limbaugh, as if some radical socialists were out there in the body politic, having as great an impact as the reactionaries who just swept to control of the House of Representatives on a wave of xenophobia and resentment.

To me, the Rally to Restore Sanity’s “moderation makes right” schtick was a little annoying, but I see it as a strategic maneuver. There was little question that Stewart’s agenda is liberal, and I don’t think many conservatives would exactly rally to his Kumbaya message after seeing their own side portrayed by Colbert as an irrational, fear-mongering caricature. There was false equivalency going on, as if both Right and Left are equally guilty of extremism, but all Stewart could come up with is the Juan Williams firing and a few clips of Ed Schulz and Keith Olbermann being dicks. (The ratio of Fox to MSNBC clips in the rally’s montage of televised absurdity was extremely lopsided; if Stewart really wanted to lampoon the Left, he might have thrown in a video of a grad student ranting about how diphthongs “do violence” to Asian-American spectrality.)

Stewart and Colbert wanted to portray themselves as above the fray, while presenting a message that was pretty favorable to liberal Democrats. After all, their slogans about civility and reasoned discourse, the age-old hallmarks of liberalism since the Enlightenment, are not without political import: if we weren’t talking about death panels, maybe we could have been talking about actual healthcare reform, a situation that seems like it would be much better for the Democrats.

What is Hedges’s gripe exactly? It’s not Jon Stewart’s fault that there is not much of a Left in this country to even seek a voice, much less have one. Hedges views the Rally as simply a televised pageant for middle class liberals – part of the bigger “society of the spectacle” that muscles out any truly leftist discourse. Is this anything new? Did the Left ever get much real estate in the public arena – outside of, perhaps, the zenith of organized labor’s influence in the 1930s and 1940s? As Elizabeth Fones-Wolf has shown in her book Waves of Opposition, unions were once able to use radio and other media to present their perspective to the public, although concerted efforts by the business community helped quash this voice and turn the media over to near-total corporate control.

Indeed, the biggest change for “the Left,” whatever that is meant to mean, has been the drastic reduction in the labor movement, which has had a profound political impact. Union members have provided the ground troops for Democratic politics for almost a century, and to a great extent they still do — with an impact that is disproportionate to the movement’s small numbers. Beyond unionists, who makes up the Left’s constituency in the US? The traditional African American and Latino civil rights groups; vegan anarchists; a small group of lefty professors, maybe. Today’s young academics appear to be less radical than their predecessors, for what it’s worth. But it seems to me that middle-class liberals (like Stewart) have almost always occupied a good deal of space on the Left of American politics, from the Progressive Era through Civil Rights and environmentalism and, most recently, the rise of the netroots. If anything, the Daily Show seems like a Trojan horse for sneaking a center left (or quasi-social democratic) message to a socially liberal middle class constituency that instinctively dislikes the Tea Party Right, but has no other ideological home to go to.

The most interesting thing to me was seeing the difference between the Sanity rally and the One Nation Working Together rally a few weeks ago, which brought thousands of union and civil rights activists to DC. In one you see Stewart’s base — aging boomers, college students, young professionals, people in general who don’t get why their fellow citizens might be feeling cranky — and in the other you see the traditional base of the Democratic interest groups, chiefly the AFL-CIO and NAACP. These two factions should have been talking to each other, but the fact is they don’t really know each other.

Stewart’s followers attracted more media attention than the white Teamsters and Latina SEIU activists who marched in support of an explicitly Democratic agenda.

As Eric Foner noted of the abolitionists, every successful political movement needs to pull strength from a wide range of opinion. You needed both mealy-mouthed moderates like Abraham Lincoln and fire-breathing true believers like Wendell Phillips or William Lloyd Garrison to end slavery, even if the different parties seemed to espouse contradictory strategies. We need an articulate and forceful Left today, just like we need a strong labor movement and support among the young, middle-class professionals, seniors and other groups to advance a progressive agenda. But belittling the importance of 200,000 Americans who cared enough about peace, the environment, equality and other issues to come out to the national mall does not seem like a great strategy to get us there.

Alex Sayf Cummings