Stewart, Colbert and Oliver for the win: Satire, millennials and fear of an extreme right-wing Senate

The midterms are now all about turnout. Our most honest news sources might make a surprising difference

Published October 30, 2014 5:15PM (EDT)

Stephen Colbert, John Oliver              (Comedy Central/HBO/Eric Liebowitz)
Stephen Colbert, John Oliver (Comedy Central/HBO/Eric Liebowitz)

This week "The Daily Show" ramped up their media coverage of midterm elections by heading to Texas for a week of shows entitled Democalypse 2014: South by South Mess. The guest the first night? Wendy Davis, of course.  But before we get too excited at the idea that a satire news show is going to the center of a hotly disputed governor’s race, it’s worth remembering that four years ago today, on October 30, 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallied on the National Mall in an unprecedented media stunt that put satire at the center of political debate.  Compared to last midterm election’s rally, "The Daily Show’s" move to Texas may seem like a bit of a letdown.

So what do we make of the shift?  Does this signal a downturn in satire’s ability to reach out to voters, especially young millennial voters?  Has satire lost its political influence?

When Stewart and Colbert held their pre-midterm election rally on the National Mall, they attracted a live audience of over 200,000 and 2.5 million viewers.  With attendees given free bus rides from New York by Arianna Huffington, the event was a true milestone in U.S. politics. Its goal? To remind the public that they should demand “reason” and “sanity” from politicians and the media. In the midst of sensationalized media hysteria, Stewart and Colbert called for a return to reasoned political debate grounded in facts and not in hype.  And they reminded their audience that they needed to vote if they wanted to defend political sanity.

Certainly a lot has changed since the day that Stewart and Colbert got the live attention of over 2.7 million people for their rally.  In the four years that have passed, millennials have grown increasingly disillusioned with Obama and the Democrats, who they believe have largely failed to deliver on the message of hope and change that brought them to the polls in droves in 2012.

Recent studies show that millennials have growing mistrust of politicians and the media, but also of authority in general. Millennials point to abuses of power that range from police brutality to the collapsed housing market not as evidence of individual corruption, but as systemic failure.

And yet, millennials remain optimistic and they remain committed to playing a role in the future of this nation. That’s what makes predicting what will happen with millennials on Election Day such a tricky business. Will they vote this time around or not? Current predictions suggest that millennials are less likely to vote than they did in 2010 and that those that do are shifting towards the GOP.  But are those predictions right?

We know one thing for certain: Ever since Obama’s first election, millennials have been expected to turn away from the ballot box, and each time they have outvoted the predictions. In the 2012 elections, despite the first wave of voter ID restrictions, young voters represented 19 percent of voters and they turned out at 50 percent, with 58 percent voting in swing states. This demographic rivals the baby boomers in size and will make up one-third of the electorate in 2015.

Americans under 40 get more of their news from satire than any one other source. Further research by the Pew Research Center from 2012 showed that among younger millennial-aged voters satire news was not only more common than traditional news, but also more trusted. Also this generation is decidedly liberal with half leaning towards the Democrats and only 34% identifying as Republicans.  Of those that lean towards the GOP, most are significantly less conservative than the rest of the party.  And that is the hook that will likely determine millennial turnout.

Recent satire has repeatedly pointed to the extreme right wing views of many of the midterm candidates, reminding viewers that if they let these candidates win, they are in for a rough time.  While the Democratsenlisted Bill Clinton to combat voter cynicism by telling millennials they’re “too young” to “cast resentment votes,” the Democrats may be missing the point entirely. Satire has a better track record of reaching millennials, and “resentment votes” seem to be exactly what satire media is encouraging this time around. The common message underlying the various satirical messaging related to the election seems to be “don’t let Republicans win because they don’t support your interests.”

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver have all mocked the Republican Party’s attempt to rebrand itself as a youth-friendly party. Colbert called out the insulting parody behind the “Say Yes to the Dress” ads that featured a young woman trying on wedding dresses named after political candidates and deciding that the Republican dress was more flattering. What made the ad even weirder was that it posed as the sort of irony we see from satirists, but rather than effectively using satire, the ad backfired and quickly became the object of millennial ridicule. In contrast, organizations like Rock the Vote have mastered the tactic of using ironic ads that dare millennials to vote. Although their campaign is called “Care Like Crazy,” the ads do not aim to sell millennials on candidates who are in line with liberal views. Instead, they feature Colbert-like characters that say things like “Women will never be as smart as men,” and end with the message “He Votes. Do You?”

It’s also crucial to point out that this year professional satire is not the only source of election-related irony aimed at millennials. One of the biggest shifts in the last four years is the growth in citizen produced satire. Average citizens are tweeting, Facebooking, and creating satirical memes that often go viral.  Entire Twitter accounts are satirical.  For example, the satirical Twitter feed for “Top Conservative Cat,” who describes as a “Colbert conservative,” has over 104,000 followers on Twitter, the Twitter account for LOLGOP has over 183,000 followers, and the pro GOP Twitter feed for #IAmARepublican was almost immediately taken over by satirical snark. So we may be missing Colbert and Stewart on the National Mall, but we now have an ongoing supply of citizen satire to add to what we can find on Comedy Central.

So can Stewart get Wendy Davis elected by moving his show to Texas for four days? And will he and his fellow satirists manage to convince young voters to cast ballots on November 4? That’s the kind of cause-and-effect question about satire that has no concrete answer.  As we argue in our new book Is Satire Saving Our Nation?, satire doesn’t tell you what to think, and elections don’t tell us how ironic the nation feels.

We do know, though, that satire resonates with millennials and that it has been an ongoing and effective source of critique for GOP messaging.  Satire has shown us that Republicans don’t get millennials or women or citizens of color, and that GOP candidates disparage science, homosexuals, and 47% of the population.  It’s worth remembering that Stewart used his first Texas show to remind viewers that Ebola panic was more about fear than about reason and then he went on to interview Davis in a segment that underscored that this election is all about turnout.  And that is the same message he was spreading four years ago on the National Mall. Will fear win? Or will sanity? So if millennials turn out this November, we’ll be thanking satire for its productive use of cynicism and its reasonable use of irony.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

MORE FROM Sophia A. McClennen

By Remy M. Maisel

Remy graduating early this December with a BA in Media Studies from Penn State University. She is a Huffington Postblogger and the coauthor of two nonfiction books: the first, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics, was written with Dr. Sophia McClennen and is out this month. The second, co-written with Sharilyn Johnson, is Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z, and will be out next month. You can find her on all the Internets @remeanie.

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