Jon Stewart: Democratic majority kingmaker

Posted: Nov 10, 2006 4:43 PM
Jon Stewart: Democratic majority kingmaker

Forget left of center bloggers, Jon Stewart is this year’s kingmaker. Without him and The Daily Show, the Democrats would not have made such large inroads in the midterm elections. Let me explain why.

In 1994 Republicans swept to victory by gaining 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate that were previously held by Democrats. While many factors explain the Republican victory--a unified theme around the Contract With America, discontent over the more liberal policies of the early Clinton Administration, corruption in the Democratic leadership, etc--Republicans in the House were quick to name Rush Limbaugh the Republican majority Kingmaker.

Is it possible that a single person was responsible for such a huge shift towards a Republican majority in Congress? Looking back, it seems almost silly to believe it. But that is only because right-wing talk radio has become such an ubiquitous phenomenon. It is everywhere. There are dozens of nationally syndicated right-leaning radio show hosts. Rush Limbaugh may still be the biggest, but his is only one voice among a chorus.

But back in the early 1990s national talk radio was new. It was exciting. It was strange. And although no one knew how it would impact American politics we all knew it was important.

For conservatives listening to Rush Limbaugh became a way to connect with other conservatives. Ditto entered into vocabulary and became a secret handshake for fellow conservatives to identify others of like mind. Remember the "Rush room"? In the back of restaurants we gathered to listen to talk radio in a safe atmosphere away from the politically correct ears of our social betters.

Rush emboldened us. He made us feel like we weren't alone.

To what extent the rise of talk radio played in the victories of 1994 cannot be accurately assessed. Surveys do not entirely capture the true reasons why people vote the way they do. What we do know is that between 1992 and 1994 self-identified conservatives rose 7%, that Republicans were energized, and that Democrats were not.

Talk radio played some role in this. Everyone on the right knew it. Newt Gingrich declared Rush Limbaugh the Majority Kingmaker. Congressional Republicans named Rush an honorary member of the House of Representatives.

12 years later Democrats swept to victory by gaining (at this count) at least 29 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate that were previously held by Republicans. While that margin is not as large as the gains made by Republicans in 1994 (54 in the House, 8 in the Senate) it is certainly a big win.

But why? A number of reasons, of course. Discontent with the war in Iraq, corruption among Republicans in Congress, an energized Democratic base, and demoralized conservatives all help explain what happened.

But one phenomenon has been overlooked. One which I believe was a key if not the key to a Democratic victory. That is the phenomenon of faux news. And Jon Stewart is its banner bearer.

Jon Stewart is an unlikely player in national politics. He's not a pundit, he's a comedian. As unlikely a candidate for Democratic kingmaker as he may be, he's a force to be reckoned with.

Ratings for The Daily Show's coverage of the '06 elections were second only to The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News. 2.0 million Americans tuned into Comedy Central on Tuesday to follow election results. That's right, more people were watching a comedian talk about the news than an anchor on CNN.

And just who is it that is tuning into The Daily Show? Young people. Lot's of them.

In fact, in the 2004 election nearly as many young people cited The Daily Show as a source of news as any other source. And Jon Stewart's Daily Show audience has only grown since then.

On the college campus where I teach, Jon Stewart's is the first and last word on all things political. His is the only name that all recognize. It’s more than that: his views are the only views considered socially acceptable. When Jon Stewart believes something, students believe it. He who Jon Stewart hates, students hate.

John Stewart is the Rush Limbaugh, and faux news the talk radio of 2006.

Students talk about what happened on The Daily Show. They do not talk about what happened on Crossfire. They relate to one another by it. It is a shared experience. It is something the most politically aware have in common.

It is this shared experience that is important. The feeling that by watching The Daily Show they are part of something bigger. It emboldens them. It energizes them.

While Jon Stewart may attempt to play the non-partisan comedian, he fails miserably. His viewers are all too aware of his Democratic partisanship and liberal leanings. He explicitly endorsed John Kerry in 2004 during an interview with the presidential candidate. Conservatives are lampoon for being conservative, liberals for not being liberal enough.

One of the most important ways this bias comes out on The Daily Show is the constant slander of Fox News. I also see that disdain among vocal college students. It's likely that many college students did not like Fox News before they became faux news junkies. But The Daily Show gives them the confidence to voice those opinions. It empowers them.

Voters in this election cited the war in Iraq as one of the main issues that drove them to the polls. And when it comes to the war in Iraq, The Daily Show has only a single point of view: it is bad.

The almost nightly segment called Mess O' Potamia constantly reminds young people that things have not gone as planned in Iraq. For Stewart, that the Iraq war was a mistake is not a matter of opinion, it is empirical fact.

For instance, in his opening monologue on election eve coverage Stewart opened up with, "Can Karl Rove's tactical genius overcome, let's say, reality?" For example, "the Iraq war" and "Republican corruption."

Jon Stewart is the voice of the new-rationalism of the Left, his is a front for the self-proclaimed reality based community. There is reality as it really is, and then there is reality as portrayed by Fox News and the Bush Administration. That is the world according the The Daily Show.

And this "reality" is the source of much of the humor on The Daily Show. The jokes are not so much about surprising the audience with the unexpected, but panders to liberal conventional wisdom. It is the expected jab at conservative values that adds humor.

"Rick Santorum has been raptured to a better place," is what passed for a joke on election day at The Daily Show.

A simple reinforcement of empirical reality as seen by Jon Stewart and his cadre of Ivy League educated writers. Facts are found that conform to this reality, and then jokes are crafted to link the fact to the reality. That is the essence of faux news humor.

Had any of them known a person who believes in the theology of rapture they might be surprised to find that very few Catholics adhere to it. And last time I checked, Rick Santorum was Catholic.

But never mind that. There are facts and then there is reality. Never let the facts get in the way of reality. That the religious right is filled with zealots pushing America towards Armageddon is reality. Everyone with any sense knows that.

And this is precisely what Stewart's clan of young followers believe. Fox is biased. That is reality. But when asked whether the CBS is also biased? Blank stares.

The grand irony of ironies in Stewart's election night coverage was the appearance of Dan Rather as a guest. When Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly appeared on The Daily Show the audience booed. Stewart grilled O'Reilly with hard ball questions. With Dan Rather he joked around.

Nothing was mentioned of the use of fake documents to attack the Bush Administration by CBS News or of Rather's continued defense of the forgeries. It's not funny if it doesn't reinforce the liberal worldview.

But even if college students are enamored with all things Jon Stewart, even if there really is a cult of The Daily Show, and even if it is fairly clear that the faux news has a rather extreme partisan Democratic and liberal bias, how does this relate to the election?

The 2006 election saw the youth vote at its largest in 20 years. While younger Americans continue to vote in smaller numbers than older Americans, 2 million more voted in this election than in that last midterm.

And that vote is becoming more Democratic. According to the bipartisan Goeas-Lake exit polls, Democrats bested Republicans among 18 - 29 year olds by a 50 - 35 percent margin.

In nationally pivotal races, it was the young voter who put Democratic candidates over the top. Exit polls indicate that in Pennsylvania 68% of those under 30 voted for the Democrat over the Jon Stewart maligned Rick Santorum. Much higher than any other age group.

In the overwhelmingly Republican state of Montana, where the race was decided by less than 3,000 votes (at last count), 56% of young people voted for the Democratic challenger over the scandal tainted incumbent. The incumbent, Burns, had once argued that President Bush had a secret plan to win the war in Iraq. John Stewart joked that a vote for the challenging Democrat was a vote for blowing President Bush's super-secret plan for Iraq.

Exit polls cannot show that Stewart and the left-leaning faux news phenomenon directly caused these gaps among youth voters. But neither could they show that there was a direct relationship between Rush Limbaugh and the elections of 1994. Yet, we all knew that somehow this new media of nationally syndicated right-leaning talk radio had made a difference. So too has the faux news phenomenon affected this election.

So, while pundits are busy pointing their collective fingers at the ineptness of the Republicans and good recruiting skills on part of the Democrats, we cannot leave Jon Stewart out of the equation. Yes the left-leaning bloggers and netroots helped, but by in-large they are also The Daily Show watchers and under 30. Far more young people watch The Daily Show than read The Daily Kos.

Sure a lot went wrong for the Republicans and a lot went right for the Democrats, but part of what went wrong for the Republicans was the perception among the young--especially among college students--reinforced by The Daily Show of an empirical reality at odds with the majority party's policies.

Just like the dittoheads before them, the cult of Jon Stewart--and increasingly of the faux news of Stephen Colbert's spin off Colbert Report--are energized by their association with like minded people. The lone viewer is now part of a group. It's much easier to voice your opinion when someone is there to reinforce it.

And just like those early dittoheads, the faux newsies are feeling the power that comes when a group first emerges and gains victory in the game of power politics. As a college student and dittohead during the 1994 election, I can tell you how elated I felt for the Gingrich Revolution. I shared that elation by tuning into the Rush Limbaugh program. And that elation spilled over into the halls of my alma mater.

Today in the halls of the college where I teach there is also elation. Among the politically active students there are visible and emotional signs that somehow they won this election. For some odd reason they feel that I should also be happy about the Democratic victory. That somehow all those who are educated must have voted for the Democrats.

The pundit they quote about what the elections mean in a wider context? Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart, this is your election. Faux news, you are the new black.

And while the presumed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his gratitude to the netroots by posting an Election Day diary at the The Daily Kos, he should have been paying homage to the real man responsible for his new office: Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart, the Democratic majority kingmaker. Expect Nancy Pelosi to name him an honorary member of the 110th Congress. He certainly deserves it.