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Comical Politics In An Anything But Comical Age


Who needs to arm a mob with swords when you can tame and incite it with laughter.

The public response to last week’s announcements regarding the departure of news anchors Brian Williams and Brian Williams is further proof that Americans are drawn to a comical politics in an anything but comical age. And this is anything but a laughing matter.

While Williams was involuntarily taken off the air for at least six months, presidential advisor Dan Pfeiffer seemed prepared to place the retiring Stewart next to Walter Cronkite on the Mt. Rushmore of nightly news anchors, stating “He essentially invented a new way to deliver the news that spoke to a younger generation less trusting of the traditional sources but still very interested in the world.”

What connects both the Williams and Stewart stories is trust. Our intellectual and cultural elite sorely want Americans to trust them. They placed Williams and Stewart in important positions designed to build that trust. Williams, in his most serious tragic pose, was to use the nightly news to provide Americans with a progressive political education. Stewart was to do the same, but with a peevish grin that validated the audience’s prejudices and was as cliquish as it was cool. The hope among many elites this week is that Stewart’s politically effective use of comedy will overshadow the mounting criticism of mainstream media tragedians as they suffer their latest setback. The political and media’s establishment continued rule over American society will require as much.

Comedy and comedians have always shaped political regimes. From Aristophanes’ The Clouds to Dante’s Divine Comedy and beyond, the comic artist has had a surprising degree of influence in forming public opinion. The United States in particular has had at least its fair share of both comedic politicians (Franklin, Lincoln) and political comedians (Twain, Chaplin). But the difference between this earlier class of individuals and most of the comedians of our day is that the former sought to encourage course corrections in society by using comedy to tell uncomfortable truths, whereas the latter employ comedy in the service of ideology, as puppets of the regime.

The lesson: better to serve the regime than to attack it, especially if one was hustling for a mass audience in an age of growing statism.

Progressivism had a least a part in producing this comedic shift in American politics. Historian Paul Johnson notes in Modern Times that the American comedic climate changed forever when H.L. Mencken found Americans unwilling to laugh at President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the depression wasn’t a laughing matter. Neither was it considered funny to ridicule a politician who told us that he felt our pain and would try anything he could to alleviate our material discomfort. The lesson: better to serve the regime than to attack it, especially if one was hustling for a mass audience in an age of growing statism.

As the American regime became more morally and culturally relativistic on ideational matters, dissenting comedians were invited into the public square to make the taboo the norm. Andy Griffiths became Archie Bunkers on their way to Jerry Seinfeld and Homer Simpson. It would take some time before American comedians would learn that membership in the regime has its benefits. Yet that’s exactly been the story as the love affair between unserious politicians and comedians has grown, the same way that it flowered generations earlier when comedians were enlisted to help fight the war against material want.

In a similar vein, Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield argued in his 2007 NEH Jefferson Lecture, ”You can tell who is in charge of a society by noticing who is allowed to get angry and for what cause, rather than by trying to gauge how much each group gets.” A year earlier Mr. Mansfield, a teacher of political philosophy, had invited a first hand demonstration of this truth by publishing a provocative work of political philosophy, Manliness. Much like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind two decades earlier, Mansfield criticized the philosophic shift in the American regime that sapped Americans of their political virility.

Whereas Bloom’s argument produced a strong, serious, and critical response from the academic community that was on the cusp of exchanging its scholarly currency for political power, Mansfield’s effort garnered some attention, but was more ripe for comedic ridicule of the “Colbert Report” variety. The lesson this time: it’s easier to unreflectively laugh away ideas we disagree with than to engage them in philosophic contest. In comedians we trust; in comedians the realm of politically correct inquiry is entrusted. Who needs to arm a mob with swords when you can tame and incite it with laughter.

The American founding deliberately challenged the idea that the mass of the community could engage in political life only as the domesticated pet or stampeding herd of an artful elite.

In Publius’s valedictory essay, Federalist 85, Alexander Hamilton claims the credit due to him and his co-authors for the serious tone of their effort: “I have addressed myself purely to your judgments, and have studiously avoided those asperities which are too apt to disgrace political disputants of all parties, and which have been not a little provoked by the language and conduct of the opponents of the Constitution.”

This is the burden and blessing of self-government: the responsibility to judge political matters–and to judge them well.

As he reflects further, he acknowledges that there were perhaps moments when being charged with conspiring “against the liberties of the people,” among other “circumstances,” “may have occasionally betrayed [him] into intemperances of expression which [he] did not intend.” Still, the body of work itself bears consistent witness to the patience and sobriety with which Publius engaged in the important debate.

The question, at the time of Hamilton’s writing, remained whether that would be enough to secure the ratification of the Constitution. Seven states had approved the Constitution by the end of April, 1788, but it would take nine for it to go into effect. Moreover, what was, at least from Publius’s perspective, the main event was about to begin: the near-simultaneous ratification conventions in Hamilton’s own New York and his co-author Madison’s home, Virginia.

Thus, Hamilton follows his reflections on his own method with an appeal to a similar seriousness on the part of the people:

Let us now pause and ask ourselves whether, in the course of these papers, the proposed Constitution has not been satisfactorily vindicated from the aspersions thrown upon it; and whether it has not been shown to be worthy of the public approbation, and necessary to the public safety and prosperity. Every man is bound to answer these questions to himself, according to the best of his conscience and understanding, and to act agreeably to the genuine and sober dictates of his judgment. This is a duty from which nothing can give him a dispensation. ‘T is one that he is called upon, nay, constrained by all the obligations that form the bands of society, to discharge sincerely and honestly. No partial motive, no particular interest, no pride of opinion, no temporary passion or prejudice, will justify to himself, to his country, or to his posterity, an improper election of the part he is to act.

This is the burden and blessing of self-government: the responsibility to judge political matters–and to judge them well.

The ironic cynicism that defines the approved humor of our day affects a position of superiority above the hurly-burly of political life and the unironic citizens who engage it. All those not protected from scorn by their affirmation of progressive pieties are summarily ridiculed and dismissed. But beneath the surface of this breezy smugness is a nihilism absolutely destructive to republican self-government–that cannot distinguish “accident and force” from “reflection and choice.”

Alexander Hamilton began The Federalist in the hope that the United States might demonstrate the possibility of “good government from reflection and choice.” He closed the work in the hope that Publius’s careful reflections on a most serious choice might be met with an equally responsible hearing by the people. He would earn their trust, if he earned their trust, with the strength of his argument, not the power of his declamation or the cleverness of his demagoguery.

From the Middle East and Russia to the Washington, D.C., chambers of the Supreme Court, there is much in our politics today that requires serious reflection and distressingly little evidence that our ruling class is up for the challenge. Where Hamilton led, he hoped the people would be persuaded to follow. In our own day, we must hope that if the people will lead, their supposed leaders will follow. But are even the people willing and able to listen over the political laugh track that will lure them to shipwreck?