Stewart and Colbert’s rally to save the USA from itself

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are taking to the streets in their fight for moderate news coverage

What started as a joke post on the highly addictive link-sharing website Reddit has morphed into a reality that could alter the immediate future of US politics.

Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" and Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive" have so shaken up the political discourse in the US that the Washington Post today asked if comedy could save the United States. And, boy, does it need saving, according to the Post:

The United States of America isn't united any more; it's being torn apart by media-driven extremism . . . Democracy is the art of compromise; it requires that Americans who hold different views be able to develop enough empathy for each other so that bipartisanship can actually occur, and the country move forward. If we cannot cut each other any slack at all, democracy cannot function.

The tonic for this dysfunction is Stewart's upcoming rally. After months of hysterical, right-wing Tea Party-dominated reports, America's political discourse will undergo a calming change. Stewart's rally is not for the enraged minority, it's for the moderate majority.

We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler moustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

Stewart is sometimes billed as the most trusted man in America. Often, his show is the only news programme on American television that toes a line between the extremes of Fox's right-wing evangelism and the browbeating liberalism of MSNBC. Stewart, however, has always been careful to disassociate himself from personal political activism. In a profile published just last week, he said candidly:

We're not provocateurs, we're not activists; we are reacting for our own catharsis . . . There is a line into demagoguery, and we try very hard to express ourselves but not move into, "So follow me! And I will lead you to the land of answers, my people!" You can fall in love with your own idea of common sense. Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having a full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you're going, "But of course, I'm fucking idiotic." It's why we don't lead a lot of marches.

Except now Stewart is leading a march -- well, a rally -- and branching out into brand new territory. As the New York Times points out, the lines between politics and the media are becoming blurred:

Picture a football game where the reporters and commentators, bored by the feckless proceedings on the field, suddenly poured out of the press box and took over the game.

In politics, it seems as if the media [are] intent on not just keeping score but also calling plays.

This trend started on the right. Palin has more influence now, as a Fox News Commentator (with a capital C), than she ever did as governor of a backwater state. Glenn Beck is just one of a handful of Fox News anchors -- such as Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly -- who use their shows as a pulpit to indoctrinate rather than inform.

The antithesis of these shows is provided by Stephen Colbert, the lampooner-in-chief of personality-driven news shows, such as Beck's. Colbert sends up their emotive, manipulative style to devastating effect on his spoof show The Colbert Report. (Imagine Brass Eye and The Day Today, but with higher production values, and produced every night.)

Colbert and Stewart have been fighting against the hysterical coverage of Fox News and figures like Beck and O'Reilly for years -- except now the game has changed. Figures such as Beck have taken to the streets. If Colbert and Stewart want to keep fighting for moderate, sensible news coverage, they will have to follow.

Duncan Robinson blogs here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.