4 Reasons Why Jon Stewart's Restoring Sanity Rally Is Great for Progressives


Given the way things have gone for progressives since the election of Barack Obama, perhaps we shouldn't be blamed for looking warily, as some do, at the spectacle that promises to fill the national Mall tomorrow at the rally hosted by Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But with any luck, it will be a eye-feast of hundreds of thousands of good-humored, well-behaved Americans, there to answer the cynicism of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, at which the notion that the election of a black president somehow sullied the nation's dignity was dressed in sanctimony and a display of patriotism so bombastic that it was almost camp.

Yet progressives and liberals, ranging from left wing to the just left of center, have expressed a range of reservations, missing, I believe, the larger point of this rally's potential  for reordering our out-of-whack politics, if only for a moment. But if that moment lasts until the polls close on Tuesday, it will have been worth it.

I agree with Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, for instance, that Stewart has made a false equivalence between the louder voices of the left and the right, setting the right's casting of Obama as Hitler on an equal plane with complaints that George W. Bush presided over war crimes. (The latter happens to be based on the fact that crimes against innocents were committed in the prosecution of an illegal war.)

Nonetheless, there are pluses that trump any minuses in the confab that will descend upon the nation's capital tomorrow:

1. Brilliant framing: Restoring Sanity v. Keep Fear Alive - If only the White House had messaging gurus as astute as the writers on the staff of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

Jon Stewart, whose on-air character is the stand-in for ordinary citizens amazed at the absurdity of American politics first announced his part in tomorrow's big event as a rally titled "Restoring Sanity," an obvious rejoinder to the travesty that was the "Restoring Honor" event convened by Fox News host Glenn Beck in August. There's even a little inside joke in Stewart's title: Pundits who are obviously ignorant of the tenets of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program painted Beck's revival as a sort of giant A.A. meeting, although it resembled nothing of the kind. "Restoring Sanity," however, comes straight out of A.A.'s second step: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."

In his parody of a right-wing talk-show host, Stephen Colbert quickly countered with his "March to Keep Fear Alive." (In fact, the "march" and the rally are a single event.) This framing pours all the recent right-wing demonstrations that have flooded the capital into the "keeping fear alive" category, while everybody else is defined as sane.

2. The inevitable aerial-view photos - In the age of Google Earth, the impact of demonstrations is told in satellite photos. What made Beck's rally so impressive was the view from above. The Stewart/Colbert rally is likely to draw at least as many people -- people who are coming to Washington to make the statement that they stand against the kind of fear-mongering that Beck represents.

One of the right's strongest strategies has been to present their mobs of angry, fearful people as representative of everyday Americans, while the traditional organizers of liberals and progressives have failed, since the close of the presidential campaign, to gather comparable crowds in support of their issues. The impact this has on the national psyche should not be dismissed.

I've heard political organizers grouse that they'd rather have people out in the field, knocking on doors, than assembling on the Mall to hear a bunch of entertainers. But the people who come to Washington tomorrow probably wouldn't be knocking on doors if there was no rally. And what these organizers fail to consider is the impact this event will make beyond the crowd that actually assembles. This gathering will be carried into millions of homes, not just via the Comedy Central coverage, but in mainstream news outlets across the nation. People who have been considering voting to be a hopeless exercise may think otherwise. They will see themselves reflected in the crowd. And the sight of hundreds of thousands gathered to counter the right-wing juggernaut at an event named "Restoring Sanity" gives hope that our politics don't need to be as crazy as they've become. And that will help get people -- sane people -- to the polls.

3. Recasting liberalism as mainstream - Everybody knows that Jon Stewart's audience is largely a liberal one. Why, then, is he describing his rally as the "Million Moderate March"? Perhaps because most Americans think of themselves as moderate.

The Guardian's Michael Tomasky has dwelt upon this question, and frets that when the liberal colors of the "moderate" crowd are shown, Fox News will have a field day with the most left-wing placards in the crowd. And no doubt they will.

But the Fox News audience is not Stewart's target: it's the millions of Americans who don't watch Fox. A show of strength on their part should give mainstream media pause before endlessly repeating right-wing memes about the Restoring Sanity gathering. Whatever liberals do or don't do, Fox News will find a way to distort either their actions or inaction. Yes, we need to be strategically smart, but hiding is not an option.

4. Energizing young people - More young people get their news from The Daily Show than from any traditional news source. And young people are the slice of the progressive coalition said to be the least likely to turn out for next week's mid-term elections. Stewart's rally, held just ahead of the election, could be the best turn-out vehicle possible for this demographic. He only needs to ask them to vote, and many who might have chosen to do something else that day could turn out. These congressional races are tight. An extra little slice of of the eligible voter pie could make a real difference in some.

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