Jon Stewart, Barack Obama and the Rally to Restore Sanity

Is tomorrow’s gathering going to be lefty, liberal, centrist or none of the above?

So, are you excited/intrigued/inspired/annoyed/amazed/delete-where-applicable at the prospect of the US comedian Jon Stewart's much-awaited Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington, DC tomorrow?

It is going to be a unique, if weird event, and even fans and supporters of Stewart – and I count myself in their number; watching The Daily Show on More 4 is one of the highlights of my evening! – are slightly confused about its exact purpose and aim.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted:

It started seemingly in fun, as a satirical poke at Fox News pundit Glenn Beck, whose Restoring Honor rally near the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August drew from 87,000 to 1,600,000 people, depending on how wacked-out your estimate was.

But many locals who plan to go to Washington Saturday – in carpools, chartered buses, packed trains – aren't laughing. Asked why they're going, they're dead serious.

"Because the political scene has become truly insane," Karen Kaplan of Ambler wrote in an email.

Allan Lundy, 63, a research consultant in Wyncote, said, "The political discourse has been so nasty and negative that there has to be a countervailing current that's more moderate and more reasonable."

When did this rally cross over from clowning to protest? Can you have a joke if for thousands it's no laughing matter? Will real protests break out at a faux event?

This week, the president of the United States and commander-in-chief, Barack Hussein Obama himself, decided to join the build-up to the rally (and the subsequent midterm elections on 2 November) by appearing as a guest on The Daily Show. The episode was screened last night on More 4 and it is worth a watch.

According to the Washington Post, nearly three million people watched Stewart's interview with the US president – the Comedy Central late-night show's third-biggest audience ever. ("The two bigger episodes?" asked the Post. "Both back in '08 – when Stewart interviewed presidential candidate Obama (3.58 million viewers) and, separately, when he interviewed the future first lady Michelle Obama (2.92 million)." I guess it's an understatement to say the first family are, ahem, popular with Daily Show viewers!)

Still, Stewart could teach the "professionals" a trick or two about interviewing politicians and asking tricky questions. Here's the Philadelphia Inquirer's take:

Welcoming but tough, Stewart lobbed cannonballs, not softballs: "You ran with such, if I may, audacity, yet legislatively it has felt timid at times," which drew a sharp comeback from Obama. Stewart painted Democrats as the tomcatting lover-man in a blues song: "Democrats this year seem to be running on 'Please, baby, one more chance'."

Obama told him "Not true" at least once, and said, "Jon, I love your show," before knocking down a question. Never mind the oddity of a president going on cable TV six days before a midterm election; it was a fascinating tightrope walk for Stewart, who has been attacked (loving every moment) by conservatives for favouring the left and by lefties for not favouring the left enough.

Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast website wrote, "I think Stewart passed the initial exam," but wondered whether any rally could live up to this much hype.

In recent days, there have been some interesting pieces published by liberals and lefties about the Daily Show and the Rally to Restore Sanity. Has Stewart bitten off more than he can chew? Can an avowedly liberal comedian and TV show host really take a stand in the "middle" between the "extremes" of left and right, and does he risk losing credibility with his core audience/supporters if he does so?

Here's the liberal Michael Tomasky, of the Guardian, who happens to be a long-time Obama supporter:

But potential danger lurks here, because Stewart is trying to pitch his event to an audience that I don't think is really his. From the time he announced the rally in mid-September, Stewart has pegged it as being aimed at the sensible, busy Americans who simply want a non-ideological sanity to prevail in Washington. He spoke of the "seventy to eighty percenters" – the people in the great middle – who eschew both extremes. The night of the announcement he mocked both the right-wing Tea Party movement and the liberal anti-war group Code Pink, whose members interrupt congressional hearings with various boisterous antics while dressed like drag-queen versions of Jackie Onassis. Playing off a phrase known instantly in America and dating back to Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March, Stewart wants a "Million Moderate March". To get his viewers into the intended spirit he offered some samples of the sort of placards he'd like to see at his rally. In this age, when Tea Partiers march carrying placards of Obama wearing a keffiyeh or sporting a Hitler moustache, people know they should pay particular attention to placards; Stewart suggested that an emblematic one for his event would read: "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."

The conflict arises in the fact that this sober and earnest middle is not really Stewart's audience. Stewart's core audience is news-junkie liberals. As is Colbert's. It's people like National Public Radio host Terry Gross, who, in a recent live dialogue at Manhattan's venerable 92nd Street Y, thanked Stewart for being the last thing she sees at night, which permits her to "go to bed with a sense that there is sanity some place in the world". It's young urbanites and students. It's the out-of-place blue fish swimming the waters of the vast, red, Middle American sea. The moderate married couple with a child or two who are too busy for politics – his ideal marcher – are for the most part probably also too busy for Stewart.

This points up one problem with the Stewart approach that liberals don't talk about much, which is his occasional and to me very awkward attempt to make Republicans laugh, too. I used to watch the show more devotedly in the Bush years, and I thought I began to notice that Monday nights (The Daily Show runs Monday to Thursday) were make-fun-of-Democrats nights. His audience tried gamely to laugh at routines about John Kerry, but they wanted Dick Cheney jokes. Stewart evidently felt (and still feels) the need to have something vaguely resembling balance. Well, it's a noble impulse. But it always felt to me like he was straining for a neutrality that wasn't there in his heart. He seems to be pitching the rally towards that same notion of neutrality. But I doubt that's what will show up on Saturday, and that's what worries me.

Writing over at HuffPo, the lefty Medea Benjamin, of the anti-war Code Pink, takes a much harder line on Stewart and his rally:

Stewart is courting people who do not want to open their window and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!" As he says on the Rally for Sanity website, he's looking for the people who've been "too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)".

So let's get this straight: people who were so horrified when the US invaded Iraq that they joined millions of others to protest are not sane? We shouldn't speak out against Wall Street bankers whose greed led to millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes? It's irrational to be angry when you see the Gulf of Mexico covered in oil because BP cut corners on safety? Don't get upset when the Supreme Court rules that corporations are people and can pour unlimited funds into our elections?

Stewart often roasts the warmakers and corporate fat cats on his show, but he seems to think that his viewers should be content to take out their frustrations with a good belly laugh.

When Jon Stewart announced the Rally to Restore Sanity, he included CODEPINK among the "loud folks" getting in the way of civil discourse. He also equated progressives calling George Bush a war criminal with right-wingers calling Obama Hitler.

. . . But it's too bad that Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian, is putting anti-war activists, Tea Partiers and black bloc anarchists in the same bag. And it's sad that he's telling his audience – many of whom are young, progressive thinkers – that activism is crazy.

An anonymous assistant on The Daily Show's blog chastised CODEPINK on line. "Dipping hands in fake blood or screaming over everyone just makes you look crazy and then the rest of the country ignores you." He said that we should, instead, focus on solutions.

CODEPINK has been proposing solutions since the day we started. We risked our lives meeting with UN weapons inspectors in Iraq right before the US invaded to see if war could be avoided. We have repeatedly travelled to Afghanistan to push for reconciliation. For the past eight years we have been posing solutions about how to deal with terrorism, how to extricate ourselves from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to make us safer at home. Whether under Bush or Obama, our voices of sanity have been drowned out by a war machine that makes billions selling weapons and hiring mercenaries.

Meanwhile, we've witnessed the agony of mothers who have lost their sons in these senseless wars, the unspeakable suffering of our friends in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lavish spending on war while our schools and hospitals are gutted.

It was because of this insanity that we began to interrupt the war criminals during their public appearances, shouting – yes, shouting – for an end to the madness. It was because of this insanity that we put fake blood on our hands to represent the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died as result of their lies. In our post-9/11 24/7 news cycle, we learned that the more audacious and outrageous the action, the more likely we were to get our anti-war message into the national conversation.

. . . Jon Stewart says he wants to restore sanity to Washington; so do we. We'll see you out on the mall, Jon.

I have to say that I can't help but sympathise with Benjamin: it is nonsensical and offensive for liberals/centrists/Serious People/etc to equate – in the name of "balance"! – lefty peaceniks who protest against pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Tea Partiers who turn up at town-hall meetings with placards equating health-care reform with the Nazi Holocaust and describing Obama as a "communist" and a "secret Muslim".

Still, should be a very interesting and perhaps even historic gathering of folk on the Mall tomorrow. Starts at noon. Tune in . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.