In the latest Comment magazine, our inimitable editor-in-chief makes the case that Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and now John Oliver have each created a perfect blend of carefully sifted news snippets, sharply pointed satire, and not-so-subtle partisan snark that is simply "toxic for democracy." Quoting columnist Jonah Goldberg, Smith goes on to argue that these various programs work by treating liberal platitudes as unquestionable truths and then ridiculing anyone who might disagree. The problem—for Smith and democracy—is that these outlets have increasing power to "inform" citizens in ways that only deepen political rifts and unhelpfully increase animosity between groups that ultimately need to live and work together.
I've watched most of these shows on-and-off for the past decade, and while I'm admittedly not a huge fan of any of them, my question remains: what is the problem here? Is it really with these three stooges who monopolize late night faux-political punditry? I doubt it. They're satirists and most satire only functions by carefully playing within certain power dynamics. Think of Jonathan Swift's modest proposal that the English and Irish might both benefit if they started eating Irish babies. It is outrageous, hilarious, and effective. Despite the fact that it creates an inner ring who hold certain truths as platitudes and want to topple the status quo (the English rule), such satire is essential to good democracy. The problem is one of where you're standing when the jokes are told. If you're the English, or in Smith's case, the Conservative whose traditional values are undermined night after night, then the humour only works to alienate. But the answer is not to silence these satirical voices; it's to create a new satirical voice, and by extension, a new dynamic that upholds traditional views while laughing at progressives. And if progressives are ridiculous, it shouldn't be that hard to ridicule them, right?
Then why is it so hard to come by a funny conservative? Sure, there was Reagan with his folksy anecdotes, but that's a long time gone, and even he was more of an equal-opportunity offender. And we've had Dennis Miller, but his cerebral wit alienated many of "his own" after his fifteenth esoteric allusion to Greek mythology. Perhaps the real problem is with those notoriously left-wing media juggernauts who simply won't allow such right-leaning programs to have a voice—but in the current world of online content, I have a hard time thinking that even the bias of media powerhouses could ultimately cage a truly funny conservative pundit.
Really, I think the answer goes back to the power dynamics at play. If one doesn't simply lump Stewart and Colbert and Oliver into the same "left-wing camp," there are some important differences between them. Stewart is, hands down, the most left-wing and pompous of these pundits, and the self-righteous enlightenment simmering below his persona does tend to grate if you disagree with any (or all) of his ideology. Colbert, however, is different. His shtick is to embody the "serious" right wingers like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, or Sean Hannity. Like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, Colbert is funny because he caricatures the Ayn-Randian dreamers of free markets, Big Oil, and unfettered liberty so well. Of course, many conservatives would like to distance themselves from the antics of a Limbaugh or the libertarianism of, say, John Galt, but Colbert's caricature is just familiar enough that his humour actually allows the right wing to healthfully laugh at itself. John Oliver (and I've admittedly seen little of him) has moved even more to the centre and takes shots at Republicans, but also Democrats. More focused around current issues (usually ones of glaring social injustice), Oliver's satire packs a punch with enough force to go around the political spectrum.
Perhaps this trajectory from The Daily Show to Last Week Tonight, a trajectory moving more to the centre, is also a sign that the times, they are a-changing. And after almost two terms of a Democratic presidency, there's only so much the marginalized democrats can satirize as they increasingly become the new status quo in power. This month, with the launch of The Flipside, a show trying to be a conservative version of the Colbert Report, perhaps we've come full-swing into a brave new world where conservatives are the new outsiders, toppling left-wing progressives as they increasingly move into central positions of power and become the instigators of a new status quo. Who knows? Maybe conservatives can be funny.