News & Politics

Why We Should Thank Stephen Colbert: 3 Ways the Culture-Jammer Exposes Our Rotten Corporate State

Colbert educates viewers on America's arcane political machinery, while schooling mainstream journalists on how to properly inform the citizenry.

He may no longer be running for president of the United States of South Carolina, but The Colbert Report'hyperreal satirist (and genuine nice guy) Stephen Colbert is still educating viewers on America's arcane political machinery, while schooling mainstream journalists on how to properly inform the citizenry. He's participated in the democratic process by recently launching the super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and campaigning for office in both 2008 and 2012. And he's amassed a well-funded war chest of still-unknown size, with which he plans on creating more attack ads to monkeywrench the electoral status quo, and perhaps more.  

Some in Colbert Nation, including this writer, spend much time dreaming that Colbert announces a surprise third-party run for the White House. If only to further illuminate the two-party system at worst, and at best, to strike a blow for satirists and other culture jammers who should seriously think about local or national politics as a worthy side project. 

"The Yes Men come the closest to Colbert for using existing rules and structures to expose and satirize their intent," media theorist Douglas Rushkoff toldAlterNet."Of course, Timothy Leary ran for governor of California, and Abbie Hoffman levitated the Pentagon. But Colbert is clearly on a scale that would have been hard to imagine early on." 

To accomplish his clever political gamesmanship, Colbert mashes his fluid identities (both of which command separate Wikipedia entries) into a unified force for transparency and hilarity, gliding in and out of character until he's destabilized the situation to his advantage. It's a much-needed merge. His various goofs have galvanized what has otherwise been depressing months of paid advertising -- courtesy of CNN, Fox and MSNBC, which should really be reporting something important -- for 1-percent cheerleaders like Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and worse. Even though they've had a mind-numbing number of "debates," none of them, save Romney, probably have a shot at winning their own party's primary, despite the disgraced Newt's peaking popularity. They certainly have little chance at winning a national election against Obama, a powerhouse incumbent. 

But last week, Colbert was polling nationally at 13 percent in a hypothetical presidential election between Obama and Romney, and he hasn't even announced a run. The Republicans need him like the Democrats need more actual socialists like Bernie Sanders. But even if they, and we, can't actually vote for him in the 2012 election, Colbert has blazed trails for present and future culture jammers seeking to derail business as usual, in politics and beyond. Here are three ways his pranks have made us stronger as a nation in a tumultuous time when we could desperately use some better press.

Uniting Citizens Against Citizens United

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission hammered the last nail into the creaking concept of clean American elections. But it also energized Colbert's attention, perhaps because it's the ultimate long-running joke: A judicial ruling so ridiculous and offensive that it's destined to rust alongside Dred Scott v. Sandford and Bush v. Gore as the worst Supreme Court decisions in American history. The best thing that can be said is that Citizens United has kicked progressive asses into action, from Scott Walker's recall to SOPA blackouts. 

"The good part is that we get to see what total corporate fascism looks like in our own lifetimes," Rushkoff wisecracked. "We don't have to imagine this as something that happens to our grandkids, and worry about the future. But the chief concern is that the evolution of the corporation to personhood, and corresponding devolution of humans to disempowered drones, has advanced even further than I would have imagined." 

By absorbing the abuses of Citizens United and pounding out an activist political action committee of his own, Colbert has launched culture-jamming attack ads that complicate the campaign's media circus by asking Iowa voters to misspell Rick Perry's name to deplete his vote count. Or asking South Carolina voters to vote for Herman Cain, who's not in the race anymore, so Colbert can count how many votes he would have gotten if the state had let voters write in their candidates. Indeed, it was in South Carolina's gospel-fueled whistlestop where Colbert, following a Pokemon-quoting Cain, broke character to rail against Citizens United

"The pundits have asked if this is all a joke," Colbert said at the College of Charleston. "And I say if they are calling being allowed to form a super PAC and collect unlimited, untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions and corporations, and spend that money on political ads and personal enrichment, and then surrender that super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office, if that is a joke, then they are saying that our entire campaign finance system is a joke." 

Crowd goes wild, including those waving signs that say "Skipping class for Stephen Colbert." Crowd also learns that our political process was a joke long before Stephen Colbert started regularly lampooning it. 

"It educates so many of us about the unfairness and intentions of the current political fundraising structure," Rushkoff added. "The ease with which he can find and exploit loopholes exposes the actual intent of much of these rules. So for those who are already concerned and suspicious, this amounts to a great education and a terrific media virus. The question, as always, is whether our knowledge translates to power, or whether all this activity just gives us a way to vent."

Participatory Democracy For Post-Millennials

"Voting is nothing more than a brief chance to register our disgust with the corporate state," journalist Chris Hedges wrote last week. "The campaign is not worth our emotional, physical or intellectual energy."   

Not as it is currently composed, it is true. But having riveting electives can help change that, which is one reason Colbert entered the race in 2008 and 2012. Rather than writing a knotty exegesis on how and why the political process has been so thoroughly hijacked, he has simply gotten involved, and offered us a vehicle in which we can live vicariously through his experiences and enlightenments. By walking the walk, his campaign has injected enough "intellectual energy" to draw hundreds and sometimes thousands to everything from a banal Federal Election Commission filing (PDF) to full-blown events like the South Carolina stump. 

Colbert's strategy is a simple one. The easiest way to demythologize and even combat a corrupt system is to go to work on its guts. By participating in the political process, Colbert has given his growing audience a means of understanding its hidden intricacies, and he's not the only one hoping that they do the same and get involved. The New Organizing Institute's Candidate Project is looking to recruit progressives across the country for thousands of local offices just begging for hungry minds invested in making change. In fact, Project Candidate's stated aim is as simple as Colbert's participation: "We want to help change-makers become decision-makers." 

"He’s illustrating how the system works by using it," Trevor Potter, Colbert's DC-based lawyer and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told the New York Times. "He can bring the audience inside the system. He can show them how it works and then leave them to conclude whether this is how it ought to work.” 

The Network Effect 

Colbert's compelling bleed between media satirist and political player is especially sharp when he's taking down candidates whose very existence is a mockery of the electoral process -- mostly because they're stuck in the revolving door between politics and media that Colbert glides through without a scratch. He's merciless when it comes to Fox News darlings like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Rick Perry fled the South Carolina primary ahead of Colbert's appearance, perhaps after hearing that Jon Huntsman dropped out because of Colbert, who had been both polling ahead of him there, and crowing about it nightly on television as a chaser. 

And even though Colbert's presidential explorations may have come to a halt, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are living in an alternative reality if they think he isn't going to destroy them from his desk for the rest of the election. Which is another way of saying that Colbert is running for president, even if he isn't. Just because he isn't stumping in Florida and parts outward doesn't mean that he isn't shaping the election's future with damning skits on Santorum's frothy xenophobia, Gingrich's naked hypocrisies or Romney's 1-percenter arrogance.  

All of these political animals who once worked for Fox News or Murdoch in one capacity or another have been bred in and by media. But like Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsy's foundational satire Network, "The Colbert Report" disrupts the creaking facade disguising the fact that most journalists and politicians have for decades served the sensational at the expense of the body politic. America's crap memory forbids most of the nation from recalling that early newspaper titans like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer -- whose name endows the annual prize awarded to the industry's supposedly finest talent -- invented yellow journalism. It's a feat that mogul Rupert Murdoch has mastered at News Corp, whose disinformation outlets like Fox News and the New York Posthave taken Network's authoritarian corporatism to illogical extremes. 

"The Colbert Report" is the flip side of Network's fascist coin. Colbert's democratizing deprogramming simultaneously educates and humors us, rather than simply feeding our fears and inflaming our prejudices, despite the fact that it looks like it's doing exactly that. Unlike Network's mad-as-hell Howard Beale, Colbert's informed rants are veiled as idiocies, but remain exactly what the citizenry needs to deconstruct a political machine now more powerful than ever, thanks to Citizen United.  

"The scariest thing about all this is that corporations have the ability to write the laws most directly, by putting their own officers and advocates in office," Rushkoff concluded. "The people have been disconnected from the last form of feedback they had, voting through the democratic process."

Colbert deserves our undying thanks for trying to reconnect them to that democratic process in a much more effective way than any other mainstream media journalist or outlet on television. Sure, he was brilliant before he undressed President Bush at his infamous 2006 White House Correspondents Association Dinner performance. But by culture-jamming American elections and their inscrutable machinery, he's making history with every run for office, and every searing critique of accepted reality.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.