The Most Powerful Liberal in America?

The Most Powerful Liberal in America?

When Jon Stewart trades in his jokes for influence, is he picking fair fights?


Is Jon Stewart the most influential liberal in America media? 

This has been a popular claim for a while, since Stewart clearly has more political influence than most politicos. In fact, many of his most famous moments turned on his ability to stop joking and get serious. Like when he destroyed CNN’s Crossfire, scolding Tucker Carlson for hurting America, or when he led that large, un-ironic campaign rally last year to answer Glenn Beck and, by extension, the Tea Party. Reporter Tom Junod proposes, in a provocative new 7,500-word Esquire article, that these somber forays into reality-based discourse have established Stewart as “the one indispensable figure of the cultural and political Left.” But with great power, comes great disappointment.

Stewart”s thirst for political relevance has led to a fundamentally disingenuous identity, Junod argues; and worse, it has begun to curdle his act.

Junod tees up the identity problem by reporting on a warm-up session with the the Daily Show audience, where Stewart flatly denies his impact on the political scene. “But you killed Crossfire!” yells a fan, and Stewart is ready with his rebuttal: “No, I didn’t. Crossfire was already dead.” That’s not exactly the point, though, and if you find this kind of shtick vexing—like politicians deploring “politics”—that is because, Junod argues, it actually undercuts Stewart’s core legitimacy:

…there it is again, that denial of power upon which his power depends. It’s strange, isn’t it: One of the fastest and most instinctive wits in America feeling it necessary to go on explaining himself again and again; a man who lives to clarify resorting to loophole; the irrepressible truth-teller insisting on something that not one person of the two hundred watching his show in the studio—never mind the millions who will watch on television—can possibly believe.

A similar tension emerged during Stewart’s (serious) closing speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, Junod proposes, because American’s most famous liberal felt the need to pretend that his huge, pre-election bonanza actually had no preference in the election:

Three days before a crucial election, Jon Stewart had stood in America’s most symbolic public space and given a speech to two hundred thousand people. The speech…wasn’t about getting out the vote or telling people to vote in a certain way. It was about Jon Stewart—about his need for another kind of out. For years, his out had been his comedy. Now it was his sincerity—his evenhandedness, his ability to rise above politics, his goodness. And three days later…the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms…

Stewart’s speech at the rally did seem weird, at least for people who thought he was finally going to deploy his influence. But a gap between popular expectations and Stewart’s abstention does not tell us much about what’s in Stewart’s heart. Junod doesn’t meet the burden of proof for this allegation, because he doesn’t demonstrate whether Stewart believes the problems that he cares about would be addressed by the election of one party over another. Plenty of social critics advance a critique that prioritizes structural and social change over mid-term disputes between the major parties. Stewart publicly leans left, sure, but there is not much evidence that he has a partisan passion for the Democratic Party. (Even before The Daily Show took off, his only recorded political donation was based on personal ties, to his former housemate, former Representative Anthony Weiner.)

This is a contrast to Junod’s first allegation against Stewart, the silly protests of his own influence, because Stewart knows that his audience rivals The Tonight Show on network television; top candidates compete to get on his show; and his media criticism has turned him into TV’s only real ombudsman. In fact, Stewart’s persona of the innocent, un-influential joker helps him rip people who, if you think about it, are way below him in the media food chain. The conventional storyline about his confrontations with Tucker Carlson or Jim Cramer is that Stewart, the little outsider, took on big insiders and won. But by any measurement you pick—audience, popularity, salary—Stewart is the big-shot entertainer punching down. His arguments may be spot-on, they may cover important ground neglected by the traditional media, but it would still be more painful to watch if people felt that Stewart was bullying, rather than “speaking truth to power.”

Rick Sanchez, who lost his CNN job after making offensive comments in response to Stewart, may have harbored resentment along those lines—he was an afternoon anchor with a small audience drawing more attention from the outsized, out-of-context clips on The Daily Show than from his own show. Stewart needs his persona in order to keep the smackdowns from moving into O’Reilly territory. And while he did not grant Esquire an interview, his sympathizers would surely note that critiquing a comedian for playing a “disingenuous” role is like criticizing a clown for wearing makeup—it’s not merely a bad argument, it’s totally beside the point. In other words, Stewart cannot operate on one premise during his show and another during his rallies, and the comedic imperatives come first. For people who prioritize politics, that is unsatisfying. They probably prefer a willingness to overtly advocate on moral grounds, like the moving Congressional testimony by Stewart’s former protégé Steven Colbert, a comedian who stays in character while revealing what he really thinks, whether the issue is immigration reform (in his testimony) or Super-PACs (which his character has created, in the real world, to demonstrate their danger). Still, some people must be thrown off by the conservative persona, because Colbert never seems to make those lists of important liberals.

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