News & Politics

Jon Stewart Should Run for President

It's time for a left-leaning celebrity to run—and win.

As host of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart mocked everyone from Tim Walz and Mike Pence to George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Photo Credit: Comedy Central

Two years ago, the suggestion that Jon Stewart should run for president would be met with satirical criticism. He does not have experience holding office, he is an entertainer, not a politician, and he's funny—too funny to be president. But times have changed dramatically. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, millions of Americans watched as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio turned red and Donald Trump, a businessman who knows more about luxury hotels than foreign policy, was voted to the highest office in the land by the will of millions of Americans.

No one saw it coming. Democrats were blindsided by the upset and the media were left scrambling. But Jon Stewart, in an interview with CNN explained, "The door is open to an a**hole like Donald Trump because the Democrats haven't done enough to show people that a government...that can be effective for people, can be efficient for people," he said. "And if you can't do that, then you've lost the right to make that change and someone's going to come in and demagogue you."

Stewart had a grasp on the current state of politics and an understanding of the drive behind Clinton's loss. More importantly, he has the charisma to make people listen.

Anything is possible, but Jon Stewart is necessary. At a time when a majority of Americans feel cheated by the demographic revolution that is underway around the world, and vote according to a deep fear of becoming minorities in their own country, Jon Stewart is the strongest weapon the Democratic Party could employ to combat Trump-era voters.

A large part of Donald Trump's appeal is that he is entertaining. His press conferences are turbulent and his tweets make us laugh and cry and nearly forget he holds the highest office in the country. America likes entertainment and craves drama. We're a reality TV obsessed, celebrity-crazed nation. Celebrity news sells. Jon Stewart would sell the same way that Trump has. He would be controversial in his bluntness, but wiser in his actions. People would be excited for him to open his mouth, but not embarrassed when he does. He is as entertaining as Donald Trump, yet he is the Donald Trump antidote.

At a time when only 16 percent of Americans think the government does the right thing “most of the time,” celebrities may simply be a trusted alternative. In 2016, Trump joined stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, and Sonny Bono in making a successful turn to politics. He did not shy away from his lack of political experience, but instead framed it as an asset, appealing to the "outsider," to the attractive idea of shaking up traditional politics. Perhaps his familiarity on our television screen was more comfortable than the detached politicians. Perhaps we could forgive him when he misspoke, because we saw it as entertainment. Perhaps no average politician could stand up to him.

But now, imagine in 2020 Jon Stewart next to Donald Trump, calling him out on every flub, every ill-informed word, with the magnetism of an accomplished entertainer. This value of Stewart should not be condoned, but embraced. However, he must not be clumped in the likes of Trump, Reagan or Schwarzenegger, because his prior career as an entertainer required a complex understanding of politics and a debate style wit. He was not reiterating the thoughts of others, but consistently building his own and expressing them in a way many current politicians cannot.

As if Stewart the entertainer does not carry enough appeal, perhaps Stewart the everyman will. Stewart worked for what he accomplished in the good old "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" tradition. Stewart held numerous jobs before hosting his own show: he was a contingency planner for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, a contract administrator for City University of New York, a puppeteer for children with disabilities, a soccer coach at Gloucester High School in Virginia, a caterer, a busboy, a shelf stocker at Woolworth's, a bartender, and finally a standup comedian. He is relatable. He is the bartender down the street, the friendly neighbor volunteer and your child's soccer coach. But he is also a political titan in his own right. He built an empire off his witty comments and political expertise; he is both relatable and intimidating.

Not only is Jon Stewart attractive as a candidate, but his win is a real possibility, thanks in part to his already existing fan base. Jon Stewart's Daily Show Twitter boasted more than 6 million followers; its Facebook page got over 7 million likes, and his episodes have garnered as many as 3.5 million viewers, not including those watched with DVR playback. He has a ready-made audience; all he has to do is talk.

Millennials make up a large part of Stewart's fan base, which is important because they are a vital demographic in the 2020 election. In the 2016 election, 50% of citizens aged 18-29 didn't show up to the polls. It seemed the millennial support Obama garnered just didn't translate to Clinton. According to a report by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, Bernie Sanders won more votes among those under age 30 than the two presumptive major-party presidential nominees combined. And it wasn't close. It was clear the Democrats presented the wrong nominee.

If Jon Stewart had run in the 2016 election, it is fair to say he would have brought back the Obama-era millennial coalition and garnered the support of the Bernie Sanders supporters. There's no reason why traditional Democrats wouldn't support him as well. In 2020, after Trump has shown his incompetency in office, Stewart's fight will only be easier. President Obama understood this. In 2015, Politico reported that Jon Stewart was invited to the White House twice—first in 2011 and again in 2014.

"Jon Stewart was a key influencer for millennials,” said Dag Vega, who worked for several years at the White House developing relationships with media figures. “They relied on him for an honest take on the news, and the president and senior staff know that.”

Stewart knows how to work the political system. In 2010, he successfully shamed politicians into passing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, legislature that covered medical expenses for emergency workers thought to be sickened by their exposure to toxic substances during the 9/11 recovery efforts. When in 2015, the bill had not yet been renewed, Stewart again took matters into his own hands and marched twice to Congress and publically shamed lawmakers into renewing the bill. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described Stewart's coverage as "one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement." Stewart took his political knowledge further, to Iran, when he wrote, directed and produced the political drama Rosewater, which portrayed a deep understanding of Iranian politics.  

Unlike Donald Trump, Stewart's history is free of questionable business dealings or allegations of sexual assault. The only "skeleton" in his closet is his name-change from Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz to Jon Stewart, a move he made to succeed as a newbie in the entertainment industry. Many other entertainers have done the same thing, including Katy Perry, Elton John and Natalie Portman. 

Trump's presidency has made the previously unthinkable a reality and paved the way for a left-leaning celebrity to run for office — and win.

 

Guy T. Saperstein is a past president of the Sierra Club Foundation; previously, he was one of the National Law Journal’s "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."

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