Stewart's liberal flock errs if it thinks civil discourse alone will help it win

By Robert McCartney
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 9:28 PM

Jon Stewart can pretend all he wants that the point of his big rally Saturday was just for chuckles, or just to encourage a more reasonable, substantive and civil tone in American politics. The reality is that his own audience on the Mall had an additional agenda, and it was decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal.

The crowd was wary of admitting it. When I asked in interviews what message they hoped the demonstration would send, participants typically said initially that they wanted less anger and more thoughtfulness in public debate and media coverage of what ails the nation.

But it only took a couple of follow-up questions to reveal that fans of Stewart and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert think that more calm debate and rationality would inevitably lead to adoption of pretty much the entire campaign platform of the national Democratic Party.

Government regulation of big corporations? We need more. Health-care reform? President Obama settled for too little. Global warming? Of course it's happening, and it should be stopped right away.

Personally, I agree with many of their positions. If Democratic strategists are smart, they'll stay up late trying to figure out how to tap this energy for the midterm elections Tuesday and in Obama's reelection campaign in 2012.

However, I also say it's self-defeating and even delusional to think progressive policies are going to be achieved just by agitating nobly for a more positive style in politics. It isn't enough to have a few laughs or wring your hands over the fact that those mean people in the tea party and at Fox News get too angry and yell too much.

The fact is, Stewart embodies a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary liberal mentality. He says he just wants everybody to be reasonable. But his fans, at least, also want one side to win. And winning in politics usually involves being self-righteous and pushy - traits that don't encourage a civil response from the other side.

The crowd's differing aims were evident in signs carried at the rally. Many emphasized the official theme of "restoring sanity," often humorously. These included: "Death to nobody," "I value expert opinion and I vote," and "One of us or perhaps neither of us may be right."

But a large number also had explicitly liberal messages, often criticizing the tea party, Republican politicians and Fox News: "Only amnesiacs vote Republican," "A little socialism is good for your health" (with a Canadian flag), "We have nothing to fear but Fox itself," and, "America, it's worth it: Stop whining and pay your taxes."

Comments from several participants illustrated the inconsistency. They simultaneously wanted political debate to be less confrontational and for the Democrats to be more aggressive.

Hamilton Jones, 41, a video editor from Somerville, Mass., started out criticizing the media for focusing on conflict at the expense of substance. "Jon Stewart is the only person who's pointing out the hypocrisy of what the government is doing and what the media is doing," he said.

But he also complained that the Democrats have been too passive. "I don't think the Democrats are really willing to stand up for their message. If you believe in something like health care, you should go out and explain why you're doing it, and be loud," Jones said.

Andy Herstek, 43, a network engineer from Warrenton, Va., said he was "sick of the intolerance, the garbage you see spewed" by cable news commentators. He went on to say that the Democrats should "stop giving ground," a point echoed by his wife, Edith, 47, a secretary. "We need to be a bit more forceful to get our point across," she said.

To their credit, the Hersteks and others said they merely want people to disagree without being disagreeable. "Just because I believe something different doesn't mean I should hate you," said Ramon Scott, 26, a banker who lives in Southwest Washington.

Although rallygoers aimed almost all of their criticism at conservatives such as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, a few also decried liberals such as Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher, whom they consider too extreme.

Of course it's vital to be factual, substantive and respectful, and I applaud Stewart and Colbert for highlighting the media's failings in sometimes promoting shallow, oversimplified confrontation.

However, despite all the appeals for calm, the reality is that outrage and indignation are powerful forces in politics. Look at the Democrats' recent history.

In 2006 and 2008, liberals were furious over the presidency of George W. Bush. That energy helped the Democrats win control of Congress in 2006 and the White House two years later.

This year, conservatives are in a fury - and it's no coincidence they're favored to take back the House and make big gains in the Senate on Tuesday.

It's fine to crack jokes and urge everyone to be more kumbaya, but the liberals who worship Stewart should not fall victim to a long-standing criticism once summed up by poet Robert Frost, who said, "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel."

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