In the Jon Stewart Era, the Joke Was Ultimately On Us

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Tonight we say farewell to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, a TV phenomenon on which future generations may well look back as being more representative than pretty much anything else (on TV, at least) of the state of American politics in the early 21st century. If we remember this era for anything, I suspect it’ll be the extreme polarization of politics. It’s this polarization that allows a show like The Daily Show to exist — but, perversely, for all that Stewart’s work in calling bullshit on the excesses of the right has been invaluable, his show also served to reinforce the very polarities it ridiculed.

TIME‘s Karol Marcowicz makes the point rather ungently in the context of an article arguing that, “As Jon Stewart wraps up 16 years of hosting The Daily Show … , one thing is certain: We’re all dumber for his tenure.” Marcowicz can really only speak for herself as far as becoming dumb(er) goes, but her argument does arrive at a more valid and important point. The problem with Stewart’s brand of punditry isn’t that it makes viewers dumber; it’s that it reflects their own views back at them, creating a sort of self-affirming feedback loop.

In her piece, Marcowicz argues that “Stewart was exactly the kind of partisan hack he eviscerated.” This isn’t entirely fair — Stewart was undeniably partisan, but he certainly wasn’t exactly the sort of partisan hack he so often targeted. There’s still a significant gulf between him and, say, Rush Limbaugh. Still, for all that Marcowicz’s argument is questionable, it does allude to something more fundamental about Stewart and his role in our nation’s political discourse.

It’s uncomfortable to admit this if you’re on the left, but in many respects, Jon Stewart is a reflection of the Bill O’Reillys of this world. He and Stephen Colbert were to the left what Fox News’ endless cavalcade of bloviating conservatives is to the right: an ongoing exercise in preaching to the converted, in making viewers feel that they’re right and the other side is wrong (and dumb).

In this respect, Stewart is very much a product of his era. The tribalism of American politics today means that no matter which side of the fence you’re on, whoever’s on the other side aren’t viewed as a group of men and women whose political views differ from your own, but with whom you can have a sensible discussion as to how best to resolve those differences — they’re viewed as the enemy, to be ridiculed and crushed and eviscerated as savagely as possible. (It’s no accident that the language of violence is almost omnipresent in these descriptions.)

This sort of rhetoric doesn’t convert anyone to your cause; rarely, if ever, can someone be shepherded into a political epiphany by having a small man from New Jersey shout at them about how stupid they are. No, outlets like The Daily Show make people who already support your cause feel great about themselves. Watching Stewart — or O’Reilly, or the majority of today’s other political commentators — is an act of self-affirmation, a confirmation that both you and he see things as they really are, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is stupid.

This, in turn, leads you to wonder exactly what any of this has achieved, beyond serving to further polarize a country that’s already pretty damn polarized. The right watches Fox News, the left watches Colbert and Stewart, and each side’s contempt for the other is reinforced. Beyond that, nothing changes.

Stewart’s not stupid, of course, and he knows this as well as anyone: last night, he even devoted a good chunk of his show to, as Slate’s Forrest Wickman puts it, “destroy[ing] the belief that The Daily Show has made any difference at all.” It was a pretty compelling segment, in its own way: Stewart went through some of his favorite targets, all of whom are, of course, doing just fine despite years of being eviscerated, crushed, ridiculed, etc. The Bible suggests, “Laugh at the Devil and he will flee from you,” which may or may not be true — but whether he flees or not, he and his equally terrifying and mostly identical brother will continue dumping insane amounts of money into pretending climate change isn’t happening and ensuring that the 1% continue to ruin the world for everyone else.

Still, in acknowledging that his show is ultimately entertainment, Stewart is significantly more honest than the pundits of the right. Marcowicz is perhaps correct when she suggests this stance was also a convenient defense — “Stewart only permitted one-way mockery… when anyone questioned his opinions and methods, he would say his show was just comedy” — but I’m not sure Stewart really felt he needed any such strategy. He’s always been pretty clear about what he’s doing.

The point has been made ad nauseam over the years that it’s a sad reflection on America that the most memorable political commentary of the period is a comedy show. But pundits tend to reflect the political culture that they’re covering, and Stewart’s brand of comedy flourished not only because the figures he ridiculed were so entirely worthy of ridicule (and continue to be so: you need look no further than the shower of assclowns participating in tonight’s Republican debate for proof of that), but because the entire system is worthy of ridicule.

In 2015, the notion of compromise (let alone any sort of bipartisanship) is so foreign to the majority of American voters — and, indeed, American politicians — that it appears ludicrous. Instead, we’re left with two camps fighting a pitched battle over whatever the hot issue of the day is, while the planet heats up and the icecaps melt and the 1% slowly retreat into gated communities from which they can watch the rest of us fight over whatever’s left of the planet. This, of course, makes for great comedy. But the punchline is: us. Think on that for long enough, and you might find your laughter dries up pretty quickly.