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Top 20 US progressives: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

Satirists, organisers of the Rally to Restore Sanity.

At 1pm on a cold Saturday afternoon, Jon Stewart stepped on stage on the Mall in Washington, DC and looked out at the crowd. More than 200,000 people looked back. The date was 30 October 2010 and it marked the moment when the host of The Daily Show - a late-night satirical programme on a relatively small cable channel - moved from mocking US politics to trying to shape its direction. Stewart and his protégé Stephen Colbert had been so incensed by the inflammatory rhetoric of Glenn "Obama Is Racist" Beck and others at the 90,000-strong Tea Party rally "to restore America" on the same spot two months earlier that they decided to hold their own.

On The Daily Show, Stewart outlined his plan. Instead of signs comparing Obama to the Nazis, or declaring that "Socialism Kills", he wanted niceness to be the order of the day. His suggested sign? "I Disagree With You But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler". Thousands answered the call, many with their own placards: "I HATE TAXES - But I like Roads, Firemen, some cops, traffic lights, National Parks, the Coast Guard . . . So I pay them anyway!". It wasn't so much the silent majority as the sarcastic minority.

This is Stewart's "base" - middle-class, well-educated Americans, tired of the country's drift to the right and the cheapening of public debate caused by Fox News's agenda-driven coverage and the he-said, she-said banalities of rolling news channels. The Daily Show might be a comedy programme - "the show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls", Stewart once observed - but research by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that its viewers were better informed about politics than those of any of its rivals. The opening monologues are often crammed with facts on "dry" subjects such as the minimum wage, the cost of America's foreign wars or taxes paid by US billionaires.

Stewart defends liberal-left causes such as health-care reform and the right to strike without backing them explicitly: his speciality is producing the killer fact, or archive clip, that undermines the right's argument. He once sliced and diced Condoleezza Rice over her claim that no one in the Bush White House gave any thought to what might happen if al-Qaeda attacked the US because the possibility seemed so remote. Cut to a clip from her testimony to the 9/11 commission, where she confessed to receiving a briefing in August 2001 titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States".

It is in interviews that the comic mask sometimes slips: Stewart told the studio audience to stop clapping for him in a fractious encounter with John Bolton, the former ambassador to the UN, because it was getting in the way of his Paxman-style inquisition.

Since taking over TDS in 1999, Stewart, now 49, has slowly become the snarky voice of young, liberal America. He gets 2.3 million viewers, including 1.3 million aged between 18 and 49 - more than any other late-night talk show. Stephen Colbert, a former TDS correspondent, graduated in 2005 to his own show, The Colbert Report, where he delivers a pitch-perfect spoof of blowhard right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly (whom Colbert calls "Papa Bear").

His crowning comedic moment came in 2006 at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a normally cosy, backslapping affair, where he stood next to George W Bush and eviscerated his policies, personality and leadership style. Of Bush's low approval ratings, he said: “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality'. And reality has a well-known liberal bias." The audience of Washington insiders didn't laugh much but the rest of America did: the speech was viewed on YouTube 2.7 million times in 48 hours and the audio became a number-one bestseller on iTunes, beating the Red Hot Chili Peppers' new album.#

Since then Colbert has turned his attention to the murky world of campaign finance, specifically political action committees - opaque organisations aptly described as “a gigantic loophole for raising and spending unlimited amounts of money". Everyone from Sarah Palin to Karl Rove has one,
and now so does Colbert: Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. He has also testified (in character) before a congressional committee on immigrant labour.

The challenge that both Colbert and Stewart now face is how to balance their comedy and activist roles: how to chuck bottles from the back without anyone saying, "Yeah, well, what would you do, smartass?"

Three days after the Rally to Restore Sanity, the Democratic Party was routed in the midterm elections, further hobbling Barack Obama's presidency. Tom Junod, writing in Esquire, called the gathering "the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history". Stewart was more sanguine. As he told the crowd that crisp October day, "These are hard times, but they're not end times. We work together to
get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here" - he gestured round Washington - "and on cable TV." The next week, he and Colbert were back on screen, doing the only thing they can to help American politics: lampoon it.

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Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.