Did the 'The Daily Show' Make Us Smarter Voters or Not? Two Satire Experts Face Off

“Bad Stories” author Steve Almond says political comedy helped us get to a place where Trump could win

There is a common thread to the writing of Steve Almond. Whether ranting about the comedy of Jon Stewart or the absurdity of football culture, his work is pointedly polemical — designed to shake up how we think, to push on the boundaries of our preconceptions and force us to ask better questions. Almond’s writing is at turns playful and deadly serious, and he loves to move from snark to analytical insight and back to snark. He is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers "Candyfreak" and "Against Football." His short stories have been anthologized widely, in the Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Erotica and Best American Mysteries series. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and elsewhere. He teaches at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and hosts The New York Times podcast “Dear Sugars” with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed.

I talked with Steve by phone about his new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country?" a book he wrote to make sense of our historical moment and, as he puts it, to keep “from going crazy.” We edited down the 23 pages of our taped conversation into this interview.

 You have a new book out, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country?" What’s your big idea behind it?

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The big idea is that all the bad outcomes that are screaming toward us when we frantically, eagerly, angrily open our browsers every minute of every day are really the result of bad stories. Until you get rid of the bad stories that allow bad political actors to assume power, you're not going to get rid of those bad outcomes. It's an effort to step back from history and stop saying Trump is the problem. He's a symptom of a whole bunch of bad stories, some of which date back to before the country was even a country. The bad story of race, for instance, lies behind the modern effort to distract people into a politics of racial resentment.

Some of the bad stories in the book have to do with the 2016 election, but most are much more foundational, such as that story of race or the idea that we're representative democracy, which has never been true. Until we start confronting these dangerous myths we’re not going to cure what ails us. We’re just going to be fighting off symptoms of the disease.

That fits well with what I saw as sort of one of the bigger tensions in the book, that there [are] superstitious stories that don't have a basis in fact and then there [are] verifiable ones. But you also seem to suggest that there was a moment in the past when people were better, smarter, more supportive of science and facts and less distracted by glitz and glamor. And yet, sometimes the book suggests that this was always part of the human condition. Talk to me a little bit about whether you are suggesting we are in a really bad moment or whether this is part of the human condition.

What I would say, actually, is that we're in a moment. American culture, in particular, converts everything into entertainment, and part of that everything now includes civic dysfunction. The decline of liberal democracy in the United States is now a huge entertainment industry. I don't think that has been the case before. I think our addiction to entertainment, our impulse to convert everything into a form of entertainment, is much more intense than ever before. Partly because of mass media and partly, I guess, because of feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A number of people have made a great deal of money monetizing that escapism.

If you were going to describe the moment when better stories circulated and when citizens were more educated, more engaged, more grounded in the facts of history, when is that time?

I'm not sure I would look at it like that. That's really not how I regard it. I think people today have access to more facts than ever before. But we are swimming in a sea of irrelevance and a triviality, and the facts don’t matter. It's not that we're not going to be given access to facts. This isn't "1984;" this is "Brave New World." We're going to be brought low by our pleasures and distractions, but I will point to one particular watershed event that I think is emblematic of this shift from an epistemology that allowed Americans to make a distinction between propagandistic spin and verifiable truth. That's the moment when The Fairness Doctrine was repealed.

When mass media arises in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, there's this unique problem that's never existed, which smart lawmakers recognize immediately. They say, Geez, we now have the technology that the founders could never have anticipated, which is radio, in this case. In 1926, a Texas lawmaker, Luther Johnson, states that “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of have those who operate these stations” — he meant radio stations — “for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in the republic and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership or dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country. Then woe be to those who did differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

So they passed the Radio Act, and that says that in order to have a public license to broadcast news, you have to serve the public good. You can't serve a partisan group or profit, and you have a responsibility to allot a reasonable amount of time to the treatment of controversial issues. That in doing so, you have to provide a representative expression of all reasonable shades of opinion. It didn't require that programs be ideologically balanced. It simply forbid stations from airing a single perspective exclusively. They wanted to make sure that radio stations didn't become for-profit echo chambers. It was a spoiler plate on propaganda, and the moment it was repealed by the FCC under Reagan, you almost immediately had the rise of right wing radio stations. Right wing demagogues spoke 24 hours a day to their listeners and essentially offered them a very powerful worldview in which their mostly white male audience was the central victim of everything. For 40 years, these guys have been telling that story.

Donald Trump has never had an original idea in his head. All he did was inherit the ethos of the right-wing demagogues and eventually their audience. There was a time when the Fairness Doctrine existed. The Fourth Estate wasn't perfect. It wasn't pure as the driven snow. But media outlets weren’t allowed to brainwash people with propaganda. Its repeal laid the foundation for what we're now seeing, which is the crumbling of liberal democracy.

Yes, and then that's why suddenly satire news starts to get attention that it shouldn't have gotten, right? Satire has always existed. It's existed in every human culture and every period of time because satire just emerges to mock abuses of power and to point out social falling. In the United States, satire starts to play a major role exactly at the moment when the straight news seems to be veering far more towards profit, fear and distraction. Talk to me a little bit about your take on the role of the satire of Jon Stewart. He was the most visible satirical comedian to be part of that transition. What do you make of that change?

There's been a long tradition of political comedy, and Jon Stewart is a part of that. He plays a helpful role. Stewart, and by extension, the cottage industry of parodists — Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee and so forth — all of those folks are really talented comedians and also good cultural critics. They hone our critical faculties. In some cases, they provide viewers who are politically disinterested with important information.

All of that is true, and at the same time, all the power that we give to them, the way in which Stewart goes from just being [a] comedian to be “the most trusted man in America,” was to me an indication that a lot of people on the left really are looking to convert our despair into laughter. This isn't Stewart’s fault. He's just trying to get laughs. But in the process, something more insidious is happening, which is that we're learning to see politics and media as a joke. There are certainly exceptions to this, places where Stewart and Colbert and the rest of them become a part of the debate about better policy and so forth. But for the most part, they keep score with laughs. Stewart was quite upfront about this.

But the question I asked in the book is what if all of these funny shows are kind of masking the vital symptoms of our disease? What is the underlying disease? The one that killed American democracy? I think it is this un-seriousness, the inability to have a serious discussion of policy that doesn't result in laughs. In fact, what if we need to feel a sense of distress and outrage at the way that the rich exploit the poor in this country and the politicians who are on the take? We should feel a sense of disgust about that, and that should motivate us not to sit in front of the TV and laugh at it. We feel better by laughing at it because we know we’re not crazy, but we need to get off our asses and detach from our portals. That's essentially the feeling that I have.

It's not that I want to blame comedians for doing their job. I blame us for thinking that that is going to change the power system in this country or make government work more effectively. Because, after all, what Stewart was preaching ultimately is that media was a joke and politics was a joke, and when I listened to Trump rallies, those were his only two convincing claims. I'm not blaming Stewart for laying the groundwork for that mindset, but he certainly participated in getting people all across the political spectrum to essentially dismiss our civic dysfunction.

OK, I completely agree with you about the transitions that took place, but I think where we disagree is in what happened to the public when they were consuming Stewart's show. We know that it was not true that he influenced people across the political spectrum. Colbert was the one who drew people across party lines, but Stewart never did. That's just one piece of the story that's important.

Right, but I think I'm less concerned with who’s watching and I’m more concerned with the effect of consuming comedic entertainment.

Yes, that was my next point: Consuming satire doesn't just lead to more cynicism and it is not directly related to political apathy. I understand why it is easy to make that connection. We can easily imagine that you watch a show, you make jokes about a system that's important and you walk away from that experience having a lack of faith, not just in the system, but also a lack of interest, right?

Here's the thing that's interesting, though. We have pretty conclusive research that shows that people who watch political satire are, yes, cynical, but also far more politically engaged. Satire news viewers are far more likely to do something about a political crisis than somebody who watches only CNN. In fact, negative news reporting tends to produce cynicism in the viewer but doesn't produce the same degree of political action as we see among satire news viewers. We're defining political action in terms of voting, protesting, signing petitions, and contacting representatives and senators. So, I understand the impulse to say that the increasing rise of satire news can't be good. I get it, but it turns out that the data doesn't back that up.

Maybe they're watching Stewart because they are more politically engaged and looking for somebody to make sense of the dysfunction.

Yes, and that's certainly true too, right? Research shows that, when you're dealing with a political crisis, if you watch something and you laugh at it, it helps you function. But then there's another side of the story, which is that there's a lot of proof that people who watch satire news shows are more informed on issues. And then there is another factor and that is that these shows keep making our brains smart because they require the viewer to understand irony. You can't process irony and not have a brain that's good at nuance. You can't process irony and not get that things can mean more than one thing. So that may be the part of your book I find most perplexing because you seem to be suggesting that we need to be better thinkers, and yet we have proof that consuming satire helps us do that.

Agreed. The bad story I take on in the book is this idea that our court jesters are somehow going to rescue the kingdom. That's not a criticism of the court jester. That's not a criticism of Stewart. It's actually a criticism of us. People who are looking to these shows to make them feel better about things that they shouldn't feel better about. They shouldn't feel better about it. We should feel an active state of distress.

Let’s talk about the way in which Neil Postman’s "Amusing Ourselves to Death" is influencing your arguments. He suggested that television is fun and distracting and doesn't lead to any sort of significant political engagement that could be positive. The idea is, if we're having fun, then we can't be serious, and that's part of how we got Trump.

One of the things that I'm curious about, though, is that again, there seems to be an interesting sort of zero-sum logic in the way the book frames serious political conversations from un-serious ones. It's an interesting argument given the fact that the whole book is really about trying to take a more nuanced view of some of these things.

One of the things that I'm curious about is the way in which it seems that you're really uncomfortable with the idea of people enjoying themselves and potentially being politically serious at the same time. I'm thinking, for example, of the ways that the Indivisible movement has incorporated a lot of satirical pranks into the things that they do. Like holding town halls with empty chairs or when they do milk carton ads that put a photo of a congressperson below a banner that says “missing: have you seen our representative,” stuff like like that. We know that getting people to be involved in politics in ways that are fun does not at all diminish political efficacy, and if anything, it keeps people connected. There's something about the fun, the sort of pleasure that folks are having while watching comedic TV shows that highlights the interplay of pleasure and politics. At the end of the day, we know that you get real political movements this way.

I'm just wanting to kind of ask you to think a little more about that sort of serious/unserious dichotomy that you structure a lot of the arguments in the book around and ask you to think a little more about whether or not it is possible that we could imagine the sorts of serious political engagement in debates that you're envisioning that might also be fun.

Sure, I'll give you a great example of what could have been both fun and also politically useful. Colbert and Stewart held a big rally which amounted to a kind of variety show. At the end of it, if one or both of them had said, OK, we're three or four days from a major election and this election has dramatic policy consequences. It's the job of every single person in this country to be an engaged citizen. Not just to go out and vote, but to support the candidates and causes that you believe in and as much as we just had fun and joked around, but there's also the serious side of democracy.

I’d have loved it if they had said, Here's what I want everybody to do. I want to make sure everybody's registered to vote, and I want you to find 10 other people who are registered to vote and no matter what you believe or what candidates causes you support, I want you to step up and assume the burdens of citizenship because that's important to our country too. Joking and having fun and making less the grief of our circumstances is important. But so is recognizing that we can change those circumstances. That would have been great. But we both know that's not what they said. They said, You are be congratulated just for showing up. It was in part the reason the election result was what it was because folks on the left showed up for a variety show and people on the right, who believe very deeply in their stories, showed up at the polls.

Honestly, I'm so struck by the way that the 99 percent movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, was covered. It was sort of like the real enemy was anybody who was taking them seriously. Here were these hippie kids expressing disgust at the manifest greed represented by Wall Street and all of its tentacles in our culture. And they were mocked for doing that. I don't think that's OK. I think that's perfectly fucked up. I think it's perfectly symptomatic of this idea that everything that's painful or difficult or complicated should be somehow converted into entertainment or a joke, and we simply just have a philosophical difference about that.

I think people who went to Bernie Sanders rallies were feeling great pleasure. Their pleasure resided in hope, it didn't reside in fear. It didn't reside in laughter about something that felt hopeless. It resided, as far as I can tell, with people feeling like, Hey, this is how America is supposed to function. This guy wants to solve problems. This guy wants people to have medical care and he wants rich to have a tiny bit less. Maybe a lot less so that a lot of kids can go to higher education without going in debt. There's nothing funny about that, but there is something beautiful.

There is a kind of moral pleasure that we can take in a democracy that seems to care for people and that’s what I think we've lost track of, because I really strongly disagree with the idea that I'm preaching for some sober, abstemious, nobody's-allowed-to-laugh ethos. I'm a comedic writer. I believe the whole purpose of comedy is to contend with negative feelings. Laughter is not the same as political action, and you can take pleasure in both.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclennen65.