Jon Stewart's expiration date: Why liberalism needs to outgrow the snark

A revitalized liberalism must outgrow "The Daily Show" host's glib fatalism -- and show there are heroes & villains

Published December 22, 2014 3:59PM (EST)

Jon Stewart                   (Comedy Central)
Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)

Barney Frank spent a whopping 32 years of his life as a U.S. congressman, and retired at a time when his party’s chances of retaking the House majority looked pretty grim. So when the onetime representative of Massachusetts’ 4th District announced in 2011 that he was calling it a career, I couldn’t really blame him. All the same, I must admit that as I read through his recent interview with Reuters — a wide-ranger in which Frank’s in his usual witty, incisive and cantankerous form — I felt a bit melancholy over what the federal government, and liberalism itself, has lost.

The whole thing is worth your time, but if I had to pick one section of the interview that seemed the most distinctly Barney Frank-esque, it would have to be the moment when the former congressman takes aim not at favorite liberal targets like Chris Christie or Jeb Bush but at two liberal heroes: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. “The press is very different today,” Frank told Reuters, comparing the current media landscape to the one of 20 years ago. Calling it “a major contributing factor to pro-right-wing, anti-government feeling,” Frank argued that the media had anything but a liberal bias. “[E]ven the liberal press is anti-government,” Frank complained. “Ever watched Jon Stewart say anything good about government?”

According to Frank, Stewart and Colbert go wrong by letting a general weariness of the corruption and plasticity of American politics blind them to recognizing the difference between the left and the right. Using Bill Maher as a contrast, Frank said that the HBO host is “very funny, but also has good and bad guys on the show.” As a result, Maher’s viewers, Frank argued, can determine for themselves which side they found more persuasive. On the other hand, Frank said, “You come away from Stewart and especially Colbert” believing that all politicians are “assholes.” Both sides are terrible, in other words, so why bother?

I’m not sure Frank’s setup here can withstand strict scrutiny (if Maher’s establishing “bad guys,” can it really be said that he’s letting his audience make up its own mind?); and I definitely think it’s a mistake to lump Colbert and Stewart together as he does. But at least as far as Stewart and “The Daily Show” goes, I believe Frank’s got a point — and a good one at that. I’ve written previously about why I find Stewart’s habit of saying he’s “just a comedian” whenever he’s challenged so annoying. But what Frank’s getting at is different, and is more about Stewart’s overall approach. More than “The Colbert Report” or Maher’s stand-up and HBO series, “The Daily Show” tends to inspire glib cynicism more than outrage or understanding. But I’d argue it’s the show’s utter dependence on Jon Stewart, Media Personality — not an “anti-government” inclination — that explains the reason why.

When I say “Jon Stewart, Media Personality,” what I mean to emphasize is the difference between being a television host or a comedian — like Maher and Colbert — and being a celebrity who’s popular due to his skill at connecting with his audience. Because while I’m sure there are many people out there who (wrongly) still think Jon Stewart is funny, the strength of “The Daily Show” for years now has been its writing and “correspondents” more than its host’s incessant mugging. What Stewart still excels at, however, is making his audience feel not only like they know and understand him, but like he knows and understands them in turn. During moments of crisis or tragedy, this can be a small blessing, since it creates a space where “The Daily Show’s” liberal, secular and cosmopolitan audience can feel like part of a larger community.

But much more often, the result of “The Daily Show’s” reliance on Jon Stewart, Media Personality, is to leave its audience with an understanding of politics that suffers from Stewart’s weakness for the superficial. Sen. John McCain, for example, may support myriad policies that Stewart finds objectionable — most especially those involving the killing and maiming of other people — but because McCain is witty, personable and seemingly forthright, he’ll always have a spot in “The Daily Show’s” heart (albeit one that’s less luxurious than it used to be). Along the same lines, Stewart has a penchant for sneering at political activists who promote all the same causes as he might, but do so without his signature (and glib) ironic distance. By focusing so heavily on the style of politics rather than the substance, Stewart leaves his audience with the mistaken impression that, ultimately, none of it really matters.

It’s the shallowness of Stewart’s politics that leads to his other notable weakness as a political pundit (which, “just a comedian” protestations aside, he clearly is); namely, his tendency to fall prey to the trap of blaming “both sides.” As the journalist Sasha Issenberg once snarked, there are times when Stewart’s desperation to maintain his cooler-than-thou remove from the political process ends up making him sound like “a David Broder column with punchlines.” Like Broder, the now-deceased legendary reporter who became known as the “dean of the Washington press corps,” Stewart can be so worried about sounding partisan, and thus losing his straight-shooter credibility, that he can make arguments and jokes that are insincere on their face. Predictably, this tic has been more obvious in the Obama years — like when he tried to give the conservative (and thinly veiled) Obama-needs-a-teleprompter meme a “Daily Show” spin.

Take a look at Stewart's interview with President Obama in 2010 as a case in point. Aired around the same time as Stewart was organizing and starring in his "Rally to Restore Sanity" —  which asked tens of thousands of "Daily Show" fans to congregate in Washington in order to ... ask both sides, politely, to adhere to an ill-defined, ahistorical standard of reasoned discourse —  he was venting to the president about all of his frustration and disappointment. "So here you are, you're two years into your administration," Stewart complained at one point, "and the question that arises in my mind [is]: Are we the people we were waiting for or does it turn out those people are still out there and we don't have their number?" It was a decent zinger, hoisting Obama's famous 2008 campaign slogan on its own petard. But coming as it did from a guy who mocks activists, ridicules earnestness and downplays the sincerity of the left and right's political differences, it was annoying as well as hypocritical.

So while I'd quibble with Frank's conclusion that Stewart is "anti-government," I'd still say he had more than a little bit of a point. If liberals want to see more of the kind of direct action that's characterized the Occupy Wall Street and #blacklivesmatter movements — if they really want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable — they're going to have to embrace a political vision that has grown beyond the idiosyncratic limitations of Jon Stewart.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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