I don’t mean to give too much weight to the Daily Show, but it is an influential liberal/progressive outlet. So, I want to write a bit more about the view of liberalism Jon Stewart lays out in his announcement of his Rally to Restore Sanity.
In his announcement clip, he equally criticizes right- and left-wingers who liken their opponents to Hitler. Okay, I’m down with that. He also takes a couple of digs at the Tea Party types. Naturally I’m down with that.
It’s a false equivalence.
Currently none of the radical left-wing voices is anywhere close to the reins of power like the radicals on the right. In fact, the right-wing nut jobs are threatening to take over the Republican party. No one can seriously argue that Democrats are about to repudiate war-making or start a huge investigation into 9/11 being an “inside job”.
Stewart is right that our political discourse is dominated by the loud, motivated 15-20% of people in the country.
But even if 70-80%, as he rightly points out, “have shit to do,” that doesn’t mean that they don’t reflect or care deeply about what’s going on their lives. They have real problems requiring real solutions, like finding and keeping a good job that will help them to pay for the modern essentials of life (food & water, shelter, education, health care, transportation) for their entire lives.
It’s fair enough to criticize loud and clamoring activitsts, but sometimes you have to shout, especially when big things are at stake. I’m sure “Give me liberty or give me death!” sounded pretty extreme. Democracy was extreme at one time. Slavery was the norm. All change has come from the loud. But it matters gravely what you’re being loud about!
For example, in Stewart’s announcement, a short clip takes a dig at Florida Congressman Alan Grayson, who said on the floor of the House a year ago this month that the Republican plan for health care is basically “don’t get sick” and, if you do, “die quickly”. Now, of course, most Republicans and conservatives don’t really want people to die. But they also don’t view it as a social responsibility – a collective (gasp!) responsibility – to see that sick people get medical care. If, in the end, you don’t have the resources for medical care, then it’s your own damn fault. That is the current Republican/conservative line. It’s worth being loud and obnoxious about such a worldview when there are, yes, “reasonable” alternatives. (Of course, Republicans/conservatives want people to rely on charitable medical care, but where’s the evidence that charity would fill the gap? And regarding emergency rooms, let’s remember that ERs only take everybody because of a federal mandate, signed by Ronald Reagan!)
Liberals cannot just sit back, stroke their chins, count on reasonable argument, and expect the 70-80% to come along with them. No. What is reasonable changes over time, largely based on what the loud and motivated are shouting about, the story they tell, and the values they celebrate. We have to be willing to define “reasonable”. And we can’t shy away from taking back important, resonant American words and ideas. People have to know what you’re willing to fight for.
I agree with Stewart that fear is the enemy of reason. That’s what makes the “duel” between Stewart and Colbert so fun. But simply appealing to the 70-80-percenters, without first articulating and defending the liberal and progressive worldview in the strongest, yet still reasonable, language possible, will never succeed. Liberals have been trying that for my entire adult life with precious little to show for it.