What does it say about South Carolina politics that, in a recent automated survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, the solid favorite to replace retiring conservative Sen. Jim DeMint is fake conservative pundit Stephen Colbert?
Nothing, really—though the results should remind us all of the fundamental ridiculousness of polling. Given a choice between a popular comedian like Colbert and a pack of little-known political types (Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy, Mick Mulvaney, Jeff Duncan, Henry McMaster, Jenny Sanford ...), of course scads of people are going to go with Colbert. (Not to mention he was the sole liberal on a list of conservatives, meaning the right-of-center vote was split.) The vast majority of voters couldn’t pick most of these hypothetical candidates out of a lineup given multiple guesses and a detailed police sketch. As for Mrs. Sanford: after splitting from her cheating husband, the state’s former first lady has been upfront about the brutishness of life in the political spotlight. Who wants a whiny senator?
And yet, in many ways, Comedy Central’s Colbert really would be a sweet fit to rep the good people of South Carolina.
For starters, there is the comedian’s (or at least his on-air alter ego’s) irrepressible passion. This is, after all, the state that brought us Rep. Joe Wilson, a man so moved by his sense of honor and duty that he blurted out “You lie!” in the middle of President Obama’s 2010 State of the Union speech. And even that’s small beans when compared with Preston Brooks, the South Carolina congressman who on May 22, 1856, marched into the Senate chamber and commenced caning Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in response to some critical remarks Sumner had made about slavery and about South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler, one of Brooks’s kin. (Despite beating Sumner unconscious, Brooks became something of a regional hero.)
Equally valuable would be Colbert’s exquisite sense of the grand gesture. Novelist Pat Conroy has long been gifted at capturing his home state’s flair for the dramatic. So too was former Gov. Mark Sanford, who, during a 2004 budget battle with state lawmakers, toted a couple of squealing, squirming pigs into the Statehouse to protest “pork projects.” (While Sanford’s legislative nemeses were miffed by all the pig poop on the carpet, the general public got a good chuckle out of the stunt.)
As for qualifications, let us not forget that the duly elected Democratic nominee for this very Senate seat in 2010 was Alvin Greene, a then-unemployed, involuntarily-if-honorably discharged military veteran whose total lack of experience was overshadowed only by the news that he had once been arrested for allegedly showing pornographic materials to and propositioning an 18-year-old college student. (Greene accepted a plea bargain that allowed for his record to be expunged provided he underwent counseling.) Small wonder that, according to a study by Pew, Greene’s campaign received more media coverage than any other of the midterm.
Then there is the philosophical logic of choosing Colbert. Forget small-bore stuff like the comedian’s views on particular issues such as abortion or the debt, or his savvy in using the airwaves and the Twitterverse to promote his platform. Focus on the big picture: shouldn’t Colbert’s lack of experience count as a plus in this era of anti-establishment fervor? With the Tea Party and Occupy movements voicing the electorate’s growing disgust with the insider-y nature of professional pols from both major parties, wouldn’t a political virgin like Colbert fit into the citizen-legislature mold about which so many disenchanted Americans’ fantasize?
Better still, the Republican Party—to which Gov. Nikki Haley belongs and to which Colbert would presumably be expected to pledge his troth—has spent the past decade or so systematically waging war on expertise of all kinds. Nothing makes Sarah Palin/Glenn Beck Republicans madder than the suggestion that pointy-headed “experts” know more about any particular issue than regular folks. By such standards, Colbert’s lack of political background and knowledge makes him more qualified to serve than, say, a political wonk like Paul Ryan.
Would the rest of the country poke fun at South Carolina politics if Governor Haley got a wild hair and decided to appoint Colbert? Sure. But, let’s face it, most of the country already makes fun of South Carolina politics, and in a far more condescending way than Colbert would provoke. In fact, tapping one of the nation’s sharpest political satirists for DeMint’s seat would almost certainly lift the state’s standing in the eyes of many.
And if nothing else, at least Senator Colbert would be a damn site hipper than that other funny guy from Minnesota.