It’s a good thing that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their “Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive” rallies last weekend on the National Mall. Now, when historians look back at what the American left did wrong in the early Obama years, they’ll have an entire event, preserved on CSPAN, which captures it perfectly.
I love Jon Stewart as much as anyone else in my demographic, but the rally hit at least three wrong notes. First, ridiculing fear. Yes, of course, Fox and friends hype the threat from terrorists, illegal immigrants, Christmas haters etc. But one reason they do so successfully is that there are quite rational reasons, in America today, to be scared out of your wits. Many Americans think that the great recession is not a passing misfortune but the new normal—that they will never regain their old quality of life. And they may well be right. The specter of decline haunts much of our political debate, and while the Tea Party has built an entire narrative around the idea that America is losing its former glory, the Obama administration keeps dancing around the subject. In his closing monologue, Stewart did acknowledge that Americans have legitimate fears, but the thrust of the event was that Americans would soothe their rattled nerves if only the media and politicians stopped whipping them up. I don’t think that’s true. In the last year or so, the right has found a way of acknowledging Americans’ terror about economic decline. The left has not, and last weekend, Stewart barely tried.
Second, the fake bipartisanship. In his montage of media silliness, Stewart made a point of counterbalancing idiotic Fox clips with idiotic MSNBC ones. And in his closing monologue, he insisted—as did candidate Barack Obama in 2008—that Americans aren’t that divided after all; only our talking heads are. There’s a long history of liberals insisting that if only pundits and politicians would stop focusing on divisive “wedge” issues like guns, abortions and gays, everyone could come to a reasonable consensus about how to renovate the American welfare state. That’s what some of Obama’s campaign rhetoric implied, and Stewart’s monologue followed in that vein. But by now we all should have learned that Americans are deeply divided over whether to have a functioning welfare state at all. It was only when Obama realized that the Congressional Republicans would not support any serious effort at covering the uninsured—once he stopped trying to be bipartisan—that he got anywhere.
• Howard Kurtz: Beware the GOP Coronation • The Most Political States• Tina Brown: Obama’s Morning-After Plan • Leslie H. Gelb: Give the People What They Want Finally, the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically. The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame Jon Stewart for all this. He’s a comedian, after all. But he’s the left’s closest equivalent to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. And while they’re busy struggling to recreate the America of William McKinley, he’s acting as if our biggest problem is that people shout at each other on the tube. For a guy as talented as Stewart, that’s insane.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.