Three years ago tomorrow, some 200,000 viewers of Comedy Central assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to witness Daily Show host Jon Stewart demand a mellowing out of American politics.
The event, co-hosted by Stewart and his counterpart Stephen Colbert, was christened, “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” It was originally scheduled as two separate, dueling demonstrations—merged into one for logistical reasons—to weigh the relative merits of conducting a civil discussion about the public concerns of the day versus behaving like crazed goobers in the same pursuit.
Viewed now, from a distance of three years, we can see with depressing clarity which side has won.
In the event’s valedictory address, Stewart said the following:
This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
In truth, the rally, like Stewart’s program, was as much a critique of American media as American public officials. “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems,” Stewart said, “but its existence makes solving them that much harder.”
Stewart’s central charge was, and is, that cable TV news networks’ portrayal of American life is false. That most ordinary people are not as mindlessly partisan or as confrontational as political pundits would have us think and, by implication, that lawmakers in Washington, D.C., do not represent the real values of real Americans.
The context of the “Sanity” gathering was the ascendancy of the Tea Party, which by October 2010 had established itself as a forceful ideological movement and would prove politically viable for the first time in the midterm elections two days after the rally.
The idea, according to Stewart and company, was that Tea Party activists were neither as bad nor as good as the respective partisan wings of the media claimed: Liberals were wrong to paint them all as bigots, while conservatives were wrong to claim theirs as the prevailing sentiments of most people.
Then and now, there is a distinction we must draw—narrow but deep—between having extreme views and expressing one’s views in an extreme fashion.
The “Sanity” rally seemed to imply the former is fine, provided the latter does not intrude. That it is possible for people with wildly divergent opinions to reach, if not common ground, then at least an honest understanding of their differences and, faced with practical considerations, some sort of middle-of-the-road compromise. That the real conflict in American politics is not between Democrats and Republicans or even liberals and conservatives, but rather between temperance and intemperance.
As we clear out the debris from this month’s government shutdown, let us ask: In today’s environment, does this prognosis hold?
Yup. Almost perfectly, in fact.
To the question, “Why did the government shut down?” the answer comes back: Because the dominant faction in Congress made demands that, as it well knew, the president was never going to accept.
That the shutdown would go on unless President Obama kneecapped his own proudest domestic policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act, was an insane proposition on the part of the Tea Party wing of the GOP. It was an impossible condition for compromise, destined to fail, and therefore an entirely theatrical exercise whose costs have run well into the billions. And this from a party that presumes to value fiscal responsibility.
That Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, took every opportunity to hurl gratuitous, infantile insults at his political adversaries when he should have been building bridges was, if not as directly destructive to the process, an audacious demonstration of bad form that only served to poison a well that was already waist-deep in arsenic.
Absent such absurdities, negotiating the minutiae of the federal budget would have been a wholly manageable task. Boring, difficult and protracted, but doable nonetheless.
It should not have required the government to grind to a halt for Congress to figure out how to allocate funds for the incoming fiscal year. That it did, and the way that it did, effectively proves Jon Stewart’s main points.
We can take it on faith that Barack Obama and Ted Cruz will never see eye-to-eye on anything. The magic of our system of government is that the world can keep right on spinning even when they don’t.
All we ask of them and their fellow public servants is to meet each other halfway—not ideologically, mind you, but temperamentally. To calm themselves down and exhibit the shows of good faith that we, their constituents, are owed, if not always deserve.