The false consensus march
When I heard about the upcoming Daily Show rally, it was in the form of a rumor about Colbert doing a rally on 10/10. The site organizing this effort was supposedly a fan-organized grassroots thing, but I was pretty sure it was astroturfing, a way of making it look like there was this fan-driven demand for the rally rather than having it come from on high. Partially that’s because it seemed unusually convenient and specific, but mostly it’s because astroturfing is something Colbert’s folks have used extensively to set the right real-world narrative context for their jokes, as they had in Colbert’s presidential campaign. Which is to say that I thought the rally was another bite at the apple they’d been aiming for with the presidential run. Which is to say: I thought it was a prank.
As we know now, it apparently is not a prank, or at least the Jon Stewart half of the equation isn’t. Most people have interpreted his unveiling of the plan on last Thursday’s Daily Show to mean that they intend to make a sincere statement by gathering their audience in one place, making visible what can be glimpsed now only in abstract numbers. But what statement? I was struck by one part of his kickoff speech:
But first, if I may: how did we get here? We live in troubled times, with real people facing very real problems, problems that have real, if imperfect, solutions that I believe 70 to 80 percent of our population could agree to try and could ultimately live with. Unfortunately, the conversation and process is controlled by the other 15 to 20 percent.
In his “Media Equation” column, David Carr rightfully pointed out that Stewart was essentially identifying a “silent majority” but wouldn’t really be happy with that association. Being an academic, however, I noticed that (aside from that second sentence being horribly run-on) this is a textbook example of what’s called the “false consensus effect.” I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting for me in this regard:
In psychology, the false consensus effect is a cognitive bias whereby a person tends to overestimate the degree of agreement that others have with them.
There is a tendency for people to assume that their own opinions, beliefs, preferences, values and habits are ‘normal’ and that others also think the same way that they do. This cognitive bias tends to cause people to assume that the majority of others think the same way they do, leading to the perception of a consensus that does not exist, a ‘false consensus’ a supposed consensus does not in fact exist.
The false consensus effect tends to exaggerate the trust that individuals place on their own beliefs, even if they are wrong.
There’s a particular tendency for this effect to occur within homogeneous groups. One study found that white supremacists vastly overestimate the percentage of people in the general population who agree with their beliefs. Politics, of course, is an area rife for group homogeneity, and what particularly struck me about Stewart’s assertion is that he was expressing, almost verbatim, a belief about politics known as “stealth democracy.” Political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that Americans are fundamentally uncomfortable with basic aspects of democratic practice like disagreement, debate, and participation. One aspect of this belief is encapsulated nicely in Stewart’s assertion that our problems “have real, if imperfect, solutions that I believe 70 to 80 percent of our population could agree to.” This is not, of course, true; if any policy solution had 70 to 80 percent support from the public, I’m sure any sensible politician would rush to implement it, and it’s certainly rare to see these levels of support in opinion polls. Stewart, then, is expressing a fundamentally undemocratic belief. He thinks that a healthy democracy is one in which everyone basically agrees, not one in which different people have different interests and values that need to be worked out through the medium of politics.
Though he may be wrong, Stewart certainly isn’t expressing a view that’s unpopular with the public. So maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt, his interest in making this statement was less in expressing the truth and more in appealing to a widely-shared, if erroneous, belief. I recently wrote about his transition from media critic to media figure, and while I still think he’s effectively serving as a media figure right now (and should probably be held to the standards thereof), maybe that’s not what he’s aiming for. People have been making the obvious comparison between Stewart and Glenn Beck, but I (genuinely!) think Beck’s interest is in using political rhetoric to burnish his own popularity, not to build any kind of movement. Stewart, however, seems like he may be shooting more for the Sarah Palin model: a media gadfly who’s never going to seek elected office (c’mon, no one seriously thinking about running for president is going to send her daughter on Dancing With the Stars) but is nevertheless interested in extending her power into the realm of politics by setting the terms of the debate and endorsing candidates. Stewart hasn’t taken that last step yet, but given the timing of the rally a few days before the midterm elections and the perceived influence of Stewart over a particular segment of the electorate, it may be hard to resist. (Especially given how goddamn seriously Stewart has been taking himself lately.)
This should be fine; after all, Stewart and I have roughly the same political preferences. My objection, though, seems to be different from what’s concerned others, who have complained that Stewart unfairly demonized the left or is cynically undermining the idea of protest. These are actually just more signs that he’s acting as a journalist or a comedian, both of which come part and parcel with a glorification of moderation which practically requires that sort of “a pox on both your houses” attitude. So that’s fine, or at least expected. What’s regrettable is that they’re not building off the breakthrough comedic model Colbert developed with his presidential run. Though it ended sooner than he (and we!) would have liked, while it lasted it took advantage of his ability to never break character to essentially prank the political system. Colbert was able to act so ridiculously without ever indicating that he was kidding that it became a test of the notion of equality in democratic politics. Can anyone run for president? Well, not really. By engaging the system on its own terms while refusing to give up his essential point of view, Colbert was able to make a subtle but powerful critique that said a lot more about American political life than Stewart can in a thousand lazy Glenn Beck impressions. It was bold, innovative, and a genuine challenge to our preconceived notions of politics.
In other words, it was everything Stewart’s rally isn’t. This upcoming event in Washington just takes the formerly disruptive Daily Show model and marks its final transition to another element within the system of political media. Rather than critiquing the system from the outside, it’s now a participant fully enmeshed, and if employing two former Clinton aides isn’t a mark of political professionalization, I don’t know what is. It’s impressive that a comedy talk show was able to make this transition, but I’m not sure if it’s actually good for the show’s audience. After all, we have lots of political media, but we only had one Daily Show, and its value stemmed in large part from its outsider position. Once it becomes an insider and falls prey to all the problems it used to gleefully skewer, it’s unclear what value it can have aside from being the funnier David Brooks. If they seemed interested in doing anything different, I might be behind them. But as long as they’re only out to perpetuate the biggest lie we tell ourselves about politics - that we’re right, and everyone agrees with us - count me out.