Everybody Wins

Bill Maher’s Plan To Defeat One Lousy Congressman Is Good for (Almost) Everyone

TV’s ‘Real Time’ host has promised to target one awful incumbent in the next congressional election and drive that person out of office. This is an excellent idea.

Janet Van Ham/HBO

Bill Maher’s liberal fan base has a new reason to cheer (and tune in): this season, he’s using his show’s considerable leverage to flip a congressional district. “There are 435 districts,” Real Time executive producer Scott Carter explains. “Most have incumbents running for re-election. We think our fans can help us narrow down the field of villains, hucksters, and boobs. But, in the end, the choice will be Bill’s.”

Spoiler alert: The crosshairs probably aren’t going to land on a Democrat. That’s got conservatives predictably up in arms. Sure, the mockery-fest to come might be painful. It might also be unfair. It could even be occasionally stupid. But in at least three ways, Maher’s initiative marks a great leap forward in liberal-leaning entertainment activism. It’ s not just good for the left—or for ratings. It’s good for Republicans, conservatives, and, yes, the United States of America.

Please, don’t be suspicious that, as a former guest on the show, I’m just looking to curry favor. Life’s tough in that designated Not Liberal chair. In the hot seat, gibberish sometimes escapes your lips. And even when you get something right, you have to pat yourself on the back. The studio audience didn’t much care to cheer when I warned them of the coming Obamacare boondoggle and the rise of a new era of total information awareness.

No, I actually mean it: with Maher’s district flip, everybody wins, except the one person who gets voted out—if, that is, the stunt even musters the votes.

First, consider what a departure this is for Maher himself. Gone are the days of cutting a million dollar check to President Obama. Let it be a lesson to us all: instead of pouring more money down the insatiable gullets of would-be saviors riding high on the mechanized fundraising hog, why not spend your precious time and energy helping to whip the officeholder you like least?

One might object that a district’s voters ought to be the ones deciding their own representative’s fate. In theory, that’s true. In practice, the two parties have long since abandoned any residual shame in nationalizing the living hell out of any election that gives them a hope of victory. At a time when many Americans are so jaded and tuned out that local or regional issues often don’t decide elections, both parties have even more of a reason to nationalize congressional campaigns. After all, the most powerful local issue is still “How much money can you get us?” Focusing cross-country distaste on a single candidate doesn’t really break new ground, even if the method and the venue are different.

Furthermore, there’s little to fear from Real Time’s animus for Citizens United. Maher, a longtime critic of the decision, wants to counter the influence of big corporate money in politics. But as we found out, big business bucks aren’t anywhere near enough to guarantee election outcomes. A 2012 analysis by The Washington Post revealed just how little changed. “Never before,” the Post’s reporters began their write-up, “has so much political money been spent to achieve so little.” If Maher’s attempted flip is successful, it’ll help inspire copycats in both parties to spend their money more wisely—and perhaps even realize that Citizens United was rightly decided, but hardly the end of the world.

Now let’s revisit the little matter of the contemptuous snarking that’s sure to loom large in this venture. Yes, political discourse in America has always been pretty ugly. No, that doesn’t mean we ought to revel in it. But, again—think about how Maher’s shifting gears. What’s worse: channeling anger and disgust into the practical effort of unseating the Republican least deserving of office, or taking a moment out of every show to ridicule a guy in a bubble pretending to be a dumb conservative? As Maher himself has observed, you can live in a bubble regardless of your party. But the bigger point is that laughing at fools is more an act of masturbation than it is an act of politics. In going after truly dire officeholders—whatever their party—we can all remember just how unfunny corruption and incompetence can be.

Finally, ponder exactly how Maher will make his final choice of congresscritter. Think he’s going to nail the most religious, the most pro-life, or the most pro-gun? Think again. Those kinds of Republicans might make the biggest hate figures for Real Time’s biggest fans. But how can Maher pass up the opportunity to drop the boom on a representative so unambiguously bad that even the most hardened conservatives smile grimly and nod along?

There’s so much dissention in the Republican ranks about policy reform, it’s not as clear as it used to be what it really means to be the most right-wing. There’s no guarantee Maher will even go after one of the “most conservative” guys in Congress. Despite top rankings from movement groups on everything from abortion to guns to taxes, Justin Amash won’t be biting his nails on Friday nights to see if he’s on Maher’s shortlist.

Odds are, Maher’s pick really will be an awful representative no one will miss. Chances are, some enterprising Republican-friendly group will give the flip strategy its own conservative (or libertarian!) spin. Best of all, even if the district doesn’t actually flip, Americans’ attention will be focused just a little bit more on hating bad government more than they hate one another.