Moderates Rally for “Sanity”?

Is it sane for “moderates” to take their politics outdoors?

The Comedy Central Rally on the Washington Mall, led by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, apparently outdrew (I’ve seen estimates of 200-250,000 participants) each of the previous three large Washington demonstrations (Glenn Beck’s march to Restore Honor; Freedom Works; and organized labor’s Rally for One Nation)– but numbers are always a matter of dispute.   But size isn’t all that matters anyway.  (See reports here, here, here, here, and here.)

First, was it really a rally for moderates?  To the extent Stewart and Colbert’s politics are visible, they skew left of center.  Although the planners tried to bring a diversified roster of performers and participants, the crowds in photos look different than those at Beck’s rallies.  The people were younger, no lawn chairs in sight, and the signs they carried were less colorful and more self-conscious ["this is a sign."]

A host of left and other groups tried to piggyback on Comedy Central’s crowds to put out their own messages.  PETA was particularly visible, pushing soy milk.  Is this moderation?

Was there a political message?  When he’s on message, Stewart always claims to be a comedian, first and throughout, with obligations not to politics, but to entertainment.  He did devote a full show to an interview with President Obama this week, but his questions were neither confrontational or fawning.  (For a fawning example, find Stewart’s interview of Bruce Springsteen.)   Still, sometimes an earnest critique of mass media creeps through.  His closing speech was pretty clear, and its clear targets were not politicians of the left or right so much as mass media:

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times…

The country’s 24-hour, politico, pundit, perpetual, panic conflict-inator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder…If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

It’s hard to think that most of the attendees are likely to vote for Republicans on Tuesday (but plenty of other people will), or that most are committed to politics in any kind of substantial way.  The rally was an event, not a movement, and it’s not clear whether it’s a part of anything larger beyond the comedians’ careers.

When do moderates march?  In general, people turn out to protest when they believe their efforts are both necessary and potentially useful.  This means some kind of intense concern.  For the passionate activist, this comes with the cause.  For the moderate, it comes with the circumstance; the middle sometimes comes out in response to threats.  When Nazis marched in Skokie, Illinois, in the late 1970s, they were far outnumbered by anti-Nazi demonstrators.  Contemporary Ku Klux Klan demonstrations also typically draw far more opponents than supporters; they respond to the provocation.

But the demonstrators at the health care town meetings last summer would tell a similar story, that they were stirred into aggressive activism by the threat of government-run health care.

Moderation is relative–of course.

What’s this all mean?  Glenn Beck claimed his purposes were only partly political, but he provided a venue for Republican candidates for office, and publicity for his various commercial enterprises.  Stewart/Colbert claim they are primarily entertainers, and their program featured more music and comedy than the typical Washington rally.  In both cases, the attendees received the speakers’ messages, but brought their own to bear to the event as well.  Beck’s people skewed right, and Stewart’s left.

The movement question is, as usual, whether the demonstration is an isolated event, or part of something larger.  Glenn Beck clearly is doing more politics.  I’m not sure that Stewart/Colbert will be, but that doesn’t mean that some of their fans won’t make more of the sanity campaign than their hosts will.

If any readers attended, please post your experiences, thoughts, in the comments section.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Moderates Rally for “Sanity”?

  1. Rob Kleidman says:

    David – Good insights and questions.

    I went to the rally with a friend and my teenage son. All of us thought the bus trip from Cleveland and back was worth it (insert your Cleveland joke here). Some fast observations and reactions:

    1. The crowd: Stewart said the crowd was a good demographic sample. I think it was more white than that. It was not that young a crowd – a lot of older and middle-aged people, and a lot of young adults.
    2. Message: I understand there is a strategic purpose to decrying extremism and fear-mongering, but I think Stewart goes too far in trying to be ‘evenhanded.’ There is a substantial, well-funded, institutionalized far right that engages in this. There is no parallel on the left. Is it wise to dismiss with equal vigor those on the right who call Muslims terrorists and those on the left who call the Tea Party racist? I think there’s room for argument on this, but I think this approach can reinforce the view that the ‘middle’ is the only sane position and that the Democratic include a substantial ‘far left’. I did see a few left sectarians as we were leaving the rally, but nobody paid them any attention.
    3. Rally not movement. You’re definitely right on this, David. Aside from Stewart at one point asking us to vote, and Kid Rock asking us to ‘care,’ there was no call for action, no outcome.

    Despite these concerns, I think at many levels it was a very good event with a decent message. Just showing that some version of the left can put together a very well-organized, enjoyable event with a diverse group on stage and in the crowd is important, and doing with with humor helps too. I think they did a good job of claiming patriotism without pandering to jingoism.

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