Far be it from me to deny that Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, is capable of witty insights. But one of his most famous gestures has always rubbed me the wrong way. In 2004, he appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” to complain in a faux-wounded tone that the combative political talk show was “hurting America” and that its hosts were “fail[ing] miserably” in their “responsibility to the public discourse.” At the time Stewart made this appearance on the show, I was caught up in a whirlwind of activity with the UNC Young Democrats in advance of the 2004 presidential election. I was a partisan, and Stewart’s denunciations of partisans rankled me. Today, I’m no longer an engaged political activist, but Stewart’s words on the show strike me as even more irritating than they did then.
With Crossfire now returning to the airwaves, I’ve been revisiting my criticisms of that 2004 sermon and Stewart’s perspective more generally. It seems to me that Stewart’s perspective is similar to that of many sociologists in particular and well-educated people more generally. Allow me to do a little quick and dirty theorizing of social change. If one wants a certain societal change to come about, you might say that there are three necessary ingredients. The first is some sort of theoretical basis for the idea one wants to promote. This might come from long-dead philosophers or from ivory-ensconced academics. The second is public agitation on behalf of the proposed change by ordinary people, through demonstrations, petition drives, boycotts, and so forth. The third, often times, is some sort of ratification of the movement by the nation’s legal and political establishment.
Stewart and his ilk would likely celebrate the first two ingredients I’ve mentioned. Theorizing is supported because, you know, smart people do that. Public demonstrations are supported because they bring to mind romantic visions of “speaking truth to power” (though perhaps moreso with some citizen protest movements, like Occupy Wall Street, than others, like the Tea Party). But the third ingredient? Political ratification? Puh-leeze. That’s the stuff of shady spin-masters and back-room deals and stodgy old five-term Senators. Instead of the high-minded intellectualism of the theorists or the sincere passion of the demonstrators, these clowns traffic in cynical partisan bickering and corrupt dealmaking. And to help win their battles, they go on shows like Crossfire and yell at each other! What a tremendous betrayal of the good, intelligent governance we would enjoy if only they would take more cues from the theorists and the citizen activists.
I see a kernel of legitimacy in this perspective; I am, after all, a sociologist. But it has always struck me as tone-deaf toward those who have real stakes in social change existing on a statutory level rather than solely as an idea tossed about at academic seminars or chanted by protestors. To give an example, I remember arguing (up a steep incline) during a class discussion that Lyndon Johnson deserved at least a decent amount of credit for the passage of the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s. Was LBJ the intellectual godfather of the Civil Rights Movement? Was he personally responsible for rousing millions of ordinary Americans to protest against racism? The first question is laughable on its face, and while the second is not quite as outrageous, it is nonetheless clear that LBJ’s contributions in this capacity lag far behind those of Martin Luther King Jr. and scores of other activists whose names history has largely forgotten. But I suggest that it would be a mistake to give short shrift to LBJ’s extraordinary skills as an arm-twister and political cage fighter in turning something like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into a reality. If LBJ had not been President in 1964, would the intellectual and public momentum behind Civil Rights have led to those bills eventually being signed by some other President anyway? Probably. But if we can agree that the fact that the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 instead of, say, 1974 prevented a great deal of suffering, I suggest we must give at least some credit to LBJ and the unglamorous tactics he employed.
So while I personally would likely join Stewart in preferring the intellectualism of theory or the romance of protest to the partisan slugfests of politics, and sneering at those who ply such trades on the set of Crossfire, I know that I am able to say that because I am not an undocumented immigrant hoping for Congress to pass immigration reform or a gay person hoping for the right to marry. Were I in those roles, as much as I might hate the practices of the political sphere and wish I could join Stewart in floating above it all, I cannot help but engage with it and urge on one side over the other. And winning those political battles will likely require me to take part in, or at least make peace with, some of the abrasive tactics Stewart looks down on.