The Real Message of the Stewart/Colbert Rally

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This weekend Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will hold their "Rally to Restore Sanity" on the mall in Washington, D.C. What does it mean that two of the nation's most prominent comedians are sponsors of a “political” rally that will potentially draw hundreds of thousands of people? Is this just a counter punch to Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, or is something else going on?

In their promotional materials, Stewart and Colbert describe their rally in the following way:

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!...We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard…Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.

Perhaps you, like me, wonder what it means that these comedians turned “news anchors” (whether you agree with them or not) have become some of people’s most trusted sources to break through the noise and cynicism in politics and public life these days, while our political figures have become ever more cartoonish in their own behavior and speech. Through their artful nightly comic routines they have helped to expose the silliness of politics, and in doing so illuminate the real issues at hand. Their interviews of authors and other prominent figures are often more likely to shed light on the national condition than the Sunday morning news shows.

Meantime, yesterday’s Washington Post ran a long examination into 600 local Tea Party groups and perhaps the most important finding of its survey of these groups was the following:

Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general

These local Tea Party groups are loose-knit citizen groups, people self-organizing in the long tradition of American politics to engage like-minded folks and have their voices heard. ThePost also found that the vast majority of Tea Party television ads and political activities are being driven by a small collection of national groups led by mainstream political operatives. In short, these national endeavors – which aim to claim the mantle of local citizen groups – are in fact yet one more example of manipulation and dirty politics by an elite political class.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I often urged people who were fearful of the “religious right” that there was a critical difference between those national leaders and efforts focused on tearing down our politics (led by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson), and those individuals who called themselves evangelicals, who were trying to genuinely express something important to the country about social values (like responsibility). More recently, when Glenn Beck held his rally, I suggested that we have the courage to look beyond Beck himself and his posturing, to listen for the underlying messages that those at his rally were trying to voice.

The formation of these different groups across the social and political spectrum is a natural occurrence in politics and public life, especially when people are aching to have their voices heard and they feel there is nowhere to turn. But it’s also worth recognizing that we will break the current impasse in the nation only when we can bring people together from these different groups.

So, while I know that politics is often about a “fight” to see who can win, I also know that progress ultimately is based on our ability to find some common ground on how society can move ahead. I’m glad that Stewart and Colbert will hold their rally this weekend, just as I was glad when Glenn Beck held his, and when individuals organize locally into Tea Parties.  At least these acts demonstrate that people care and are willing to step forward.

The risk we run today is the self-fulfilling prophecy that there are no shared aspirations and concerns on which people can come together to make progress. After Election Day, this November 2, our task will be to find ways to bring people from different perspectives together to take the first steps in discovering productive ways for us collectively to move ahead. Not everyone will join such conversations; nor will people agree on all things. And such efforts will be much harder than simply joining hands in a circle and singing Kumbyah. But let’s not allow those who wish to obstruct progress stop us from making progress: we must start with those who will join in, so we can get our country moving forward again. Then maybe we can restore some more sanity to our politics and public life.