So much of our dumb cultural, political and social lives are just begging to be satirized. So in 1988, that’s exactly what the Onion started doing, launching a small weekly newspaper out of Madison, Wisconsin. From its humble beginnings, the satirical news site has grown into a media titan in its own right and serves as the direct antecedent of programs like the "Daily Show" and countless imitators such as the Daily Currant. The print edition is no more, but its multiple websites – including the “news” pages, video channels (including TED spoof “Onion Talks"), the A.V. Club, and ClickHole (aka the Onion does Buzzfeed) – attract 30 million unique visitors each month. Somehow, it’s not only kept its wits intact through all that growth, but its keen satirical eye has only grown sharper.
Wrangling the best political pieces from the Onion is pretty much an impossible task – there’s just too much good there to reduce it to a reasonably sized list. But we do have some favorites, nonetheless. Out of an almost limitless supply, here are just 16 of the Onion’s best political pieces.
After the mass shooting in Oregon earlier this month, the Onion quietly reposted this article. It had run twice before: once after the racially motivated shooting in Charleston that left nine dead and, before that, after a mass shooting at the University of California in which seven were killed. On its own, it’s a fairly sublime bit of satire. But by posting the story repeatedly – to show how the details change with each tragic mass shooting, yet the circumstances remain the same – it’s an even more powerful indictment of our culture of gun violence and our country's refusal to do anything about it.
After the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre blamed the shooting on video games, music videos and “[p]eople...driven by demons” – but not, curiously, guns. In fact, LaPierre suggested what we need is more of those, and called on Congress to “put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.” This Onion article ran nearly a year later, after a 2013 Nevada school shooting– the 15th that year – left two injured and two dead. It effectively encapsulates the ridiculousness of the NRA position, and imagines La Pierre saying things you probably shouldn’t put past him in real life. (“The only way to ensure safety in our schools is to make sure teachers hold fully loaded firearms at students from the moment they walk into the classroom until the moment they leave.”)
3. New 'Anti-Abortion Pill' Kills Mother, Leaves Fetus Alive (May 10, 2006)
Finally, a pill that anti-reproductive justice activists will love. The Onion skewers not only the palpable misogyny of so much anti-abortion legislation, but also mocks the men who have so much to say about women having a say in what happens with their own bodies. "This is a step forward for equality," a men's rights activist says. "For too long, women have had an unfair advantage in the outcome of a pregnancy. UR-86 levels the playing field for husbands and boyfriends across America."
Despite all the evidence showing most welfare recipients are working poor, conservatives continue to push the idea that federal aid flows to the lazy and entitled. That way, instead of addressing issues of real consequence, conservatives can waste time and money on bills that serve no purpose other than making it even harder to be poor in this country. In an era in which more and more states are passing laws forcing welfare recipients to be drug-tested (and Kansas has even prohibited welfare recipients from using funds to “visit swimming pools [or] see movies”), reality is only slightly less ridiculous than satire.
5. Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried As Black Adult (Jan. 22, 2011)
A pretty brilliant satirical take on a devastating truth. In this Onion News Network clip, a blonde teenager collapses into tears when a judge hands down the “harshest possible sentencing from the judge”: being tried as a black adult. “We’re going to do our best to make sure that Hannah is treated with the sympathy and sensitivity that she as a photogenic white girl deserves,” the teen’s mother tells the press after they exit the court. “This is America,” her father adds. “Nobody deserves to be treated as a black man.”
6. Drugs Win Drug War (Jan. 10, 1998)
Before America conceded that the war on drugs has been a colossal failure, the Onion was already declaring the U.S. had long lost the battle. Bonus points to this vintage article for its photo, which features then-Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey holding a press conference with two of “the nation’s stoners” – one lighting a bong and both wearing tie dye – who will be assuming power.
7. Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job (Nov. 4, 2008)
Immediately after Barack Obama’s election, the Onion posted this article that played with the topic of race and foresaw the issues awaiting America’s first black president. “In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation's broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis.”
8. ‘98 Homosexual-Recruitment Drive Nearing Goal (July 29, 1998)
Way back in the late 1990s, the Onion was making fun of the conservative belief that most gays have dedicated their lives to spreading “the homosexual lifestyle.” Straight out of some paranoid homophobic nightmare, the Onion reports that the National Gay & Lesbian Recruitment Task Force is having unprecedented success with it's topsy-turvy conversion therapy. Fred Phelps, the late head of the Westboro Baptist Church, actually mistook this article for a real news item and posted it on his website to warn followers about the out-of-control gay menace.
9. Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over’ (Jan. 17, 2001)
Within a few years of Bush’s election, this Onion article would seem almost eerily prescient, so accurately did it nail how 43’s term in office would look. "You better believe we're going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration," a newly elected Bush says. "Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations...We must squander our nation's hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it."
10. Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex (May 18, 2011)
The Onion turns the conservative fever dream of Planned Parenthood as an abortion wonderland into a reality. Despite totally unbelievable details like the organization changing its slogan to “No Life Is Sacred” and a description of the Abortionplex as a “state-of-the-art fetus-killing facility” housing 2,000 rooms where abortions are performed, Republican Congressman John Fleming bought the story hook, line and sinker. Fleming posted it to his Facebook wall, where several people pointed out that the Onion is a satirical site. Elsewhere on the Internet, hundreds of users who got the joke have posted (mostly glowing) reviews of the Abortionplex on a Yelp page dedicated to the fictitious site.
11. Ho, Ho, Ho! 9/11 Was An Inside Job! (Dec. 12, 2012)
Rounds up every 9/11 conspiracy theory bit of “evidence” into an article from Santa Claus, who insists on making sure all of America’s little boys and girls know they’ve been duped. “The type of steel they used melts at a temperature of about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, and as I'm sure all you smart little boys and girls know, jet fuel burns at 1,500 degrees, tops,” Santa explains. Sits somewhere between embracing the paranoia and foreshadowing all those 9/11 truther memes.
12. U.S. Flag Recalled After Causing 143 Million Deaths (April 13, 2010)
Ronald Burman, the Onion’s fictional president of the flag manufacturer that issued the recall, sums up the problem with America’s flag. "Unfortunately, the practical applications of this product are far outnumbered by the risks it presents. Millions have died needlessly, and when you ask people why, they point to the flag...When combined with alcohol, excessive patriotism, grief, or well-intentioned but ultimately misguided ideals, U.S. flags transform into ticking time bombs, just waiting to go off.”
What better way to point out the absurdity of the idea that marriage equality is a threat to “traditional marriage” than to imagine gays on a rampage after DOMA’s repeal. The headline says it all, but the piece goes on to paint a scene in which “roving bands of homosexuals” terrorize straights, dragging “helpless Americans...from their marital unions.” Somewhere, someone’s great aunt is pasting this article into a group email as we speak.
14. Income Inequality Emerges As Key Topic To Avoid In 2014 Elections (May 5, 2014)
As the New Yorker notes, “[i]ncome inequality is greater in the United States than in any other democracy in the developed world.” The disparity betweenthose with the most and pretty much everyone else has been steadily widening over the last few decades, with no sign of change in the foreseeable future. It’s a highly relevant topic and, as the Onion points out, one most politicians will do their absolute best to avoid. “The well-documented and steadily increasing gap between the rich and poor has come to the fore as the hot-button issue that all congressional candidates will be dodging at town halls, in televised debates, and at voter meet-and-greets in 2014,” the publication has one political analyst state.
15. Candidate Turns To Focus Group For Position On Rape (Aug. 15, 2011)
Cowardly politicians are always a worthy target, and the Onion puts them in its satirical crosshairs with regularity. But what’s also notable about this particular piece is that it ran almost exactly a year before Republicans really started turning up the crazy in discussions about rape, a stretch that kicked off in 2012 with Todd Aiken’s “legitimate rape” comments. In any case, like so many Onion articles, it’s even more relevant today.
16. Experts Point To Long, Glorious History Of Successful U.S. Bombing Campaigns (Aug. 27, 2013)
Another story where the headline really says it all, but the article deserves a read, too. Mostly for gems like this: “The record clearly shows that, in every instance since the Second World War in which the U.S. government has launched strategic missile attacks on foreign soil, our military forces easily targeted enemy assailants with total precision, leaving no civilian casualties, collateral damage, or any long-term negative consequences for the affected country or region, American foreign policy, or international relations as a whole.”