It’s not easy being liberal in a country whose citizens’ political beliefs are shaped more by bumper stickers and hatred than by debate, reason or facts. I mean, it’s one thing to have to listen to people who can’t find France on a map detail the horrors of the French health care system, but in America I also have to suffer the consequences of letting those same idiots vote for special ed kids like W. Bush because “he seems like someone I’d want to have a beer with.”
Needless to say, since my nation hands over the keys to nuclear missiles to whoever has the most impressive chugging credentials, I tend to approach upcoming elections with the same kind of dread a lifelong smoker feels while waiting for the results of a chest X-Ray.
This year, though, I’m not afraid. Not because I’m 100 percent confident that Obama will handedly win his bid for a second term—though I am. No, I’m not afraid because I am frankly too bedazzled by the absurdist spectacle the GOP Primaries have become to care about their impact on America’s future.
Seriously, this crop of GOP candidates is comically bad in ways so historical they are actually achieving a level of sublimity. It’s a rare and creepy kind of beauty only found in Ed Wood films and rubenesque hookers, and I’m sure it’ll give us all something to look back fondly on in a few years when said candidates reduce America to a pile of rubble.
Just consider the events of today alone: Rick Perry, who said God asked him to run for president, dropped out of the race, proving that along with being a weak candidate he’s also a crappy Christian; Mitt Romney spent the day not answering questions about the taxes he doesn’t pay; Newt Gingrich’s ex-wife revealed that while the former Speaker of the House likes his borders closed, he prefers his marriages open; Rick Santorum was named the official winner of the Iowa Caucus nearly two weeks after America Googled an end to his campaign; and Ron Paul spun straw into gold in exchange for a young woman’s first born.
All of that in only one day, and it’s not even February. At this rate, by the time November rolls around we’re likely going to discover that Newt has a sex tape, that Romney learned how to store his pets while traveling by watching National Lampoon’s Vacation, and that Ron Paul has actually been dead for several years.
Still, the real political news this year will continue to be the role Super PACs are having in the first presidential campaign since Citizens United gave birth to citizens incorporated. While we all knew the advent of Super PACs would lead to millions—if not billions—of dollars being dumped anonymously into attack ads, what we perhaps didn’t expect was the emergence of The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC.
In case you don’t know, the host of the Stephen Colbert Report started a Super PAC earlier this year in order to raise money to impact politics in his own, sarcastic way (such as attempting to buy the naming rights of the South Carolina GOP Primary as well as running a series of ads asking people to vote for a candidate who is no longer in the race but still on the ballot as a way of actually voting for Colbert).
Colbert recently signed the Super PAC over to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, and the two comedians appear intent on using this new, powerful political organization to make as big a mockery of the American electoral process as they can.
Amusing as Stewart and Colbert’s Super Pac is, it’s also a sad testament to how broken American democracy truly has become. Stewart, who regularly shows up in polls as America’s most trusted name in news while simultaneously hosting a fake news show, and Colbert, who clearly is relishing the comedic possibilities of a legitimate though tongue-in-cheek run for president, have both become major players in our nation’s political discussions.
They’ve been credited with the passage of numerous bills in Congress and last year staged a political rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that drew a crowd of nearly 300,000 people. That’s more than three times the crowd that showed up at the rally Stewart and Colbert were spoofing—the Restoring Honor rally hosted by former Fox News personality and current nobody Glenn Beck. The fact that the spoof outdrew the original, “honest” attempt at a political rally should not be a surprise, though.
The jester has always had a role in politics, sniping from the side and lampooning the process as a whole. But today, jesters are not just the voice of reason: in many cases, they’re the ones directing our political discussions from the get go. Say what you will, but rodeo clowns like Rush Limbaugh who are simply reading a script they clearly don’t believe and caricatures like Colbert are having a greater influence on the average American’s beliefs than are President Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner, or any of the current Republican candidates for president.
This is a new phenomenon in our nation’s history. Oh sure, late night comedians have always garnered the admiration and love of millions, but in the past when people wanted political direction and leadership, they turned towards their elected officials, community organizers or religious leader: not Johnny Carson.
Not that politics has ever been dignified or pretty, but what we’re seeing today is a political system so broken and corrupt, so polluted with theatrics, money and borderline sociopaths, intelligent people can no longer take the system seriously or view the politicians as legitimate servants to our nation’s best interests. Our democracy has become a theatrical performance, and we readily acknowledge that the politicians are mere actors sticking to a script their handlers have written for them.
We’re a sophisticated society, and suspending our disbelief long enough to be moved emotionally or intellectually by a candidate’s rhetoric is no longer possible. We know it’s a farce, and millions of Americans echo this truth everyday. But unless you have the ability to start your own Super PAC, it’s a farce you still have to play along with—because if the candidate starring as the politician who’ll generally vote the way you would loses, you lose. And vice versa. So, we volunteer, we donate our money, and we vote.
We go through the motions: we keep skipping down that yellow brick road knowing all along that not only is there no Wizard, there’s also no Oz.
So is it any surprise that we turn to entertainers for political insight and guidance? After all, it’s in people like Stewart and Colbert, Limbaugh and Beck, that we find the political catharsis we no longer can achieve through our elected officials, and it’s in laughing at the growing absurdities of our democracy that we can learn to accept, even grow comfortable with, our necessary participation in a play we didn’t write, don’t want to watch, and stopped believing in years ago.
But that’s the American political system, and it’s worked for over 200 years. Still, how much longer can we reasonably continue looking at it as a system through which justice, security and social progress can be achieved when it increasingly feels less like a democracy and more like a ticking bomb whose eruption is inevitable? That’s a difficult question to answer, and until someone does the only thing a sane person can do in the meantime is sit back, shrug their shoulders and laugh hysterically like Slim Pickens riding that missile at the end of Dr. Strangelove.