On Thursday, January 12, 2012, Stephen Colbert, a popular faux newscaster and host of The Colbert Report, announced his presidential run for the office of “The United States of America of South Carolina. ” While the host of the satirical television show was not be able to run due to South Carolina’s voting laws, the announcement caused quite a showing of support, and in a Public Policy Polling poll, Colbert was ahead of former governor John Huntsman by a percentile (Shaw). The public’s response to Colbert’s announcement reflects the political power of present day satirists.
Since adept political cartoonists, satirists, and comedians are able to expose the actions and ideas of national and world politicians with razor sharp levity, they play a key role in the political process by promoting political change and influencing public perceptions. Satire is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly. ” With the up and coming 2012 presidential election as a catalyst political satire is in its prime.
The political candidates will be “exposed and discredited” from many angles on television shows, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live, and in political cartoons in newspapers around the country. This practice has a long and storied history that has changed politics significantly. A critic of satire’s affect on politics might state that it is purely for humor and has no influence on political reality; satirical television shows are funny but not credible enough to sway political opinion. The expectation is that educated voters and practicing politicians look past the taunts and jokes of practicing satirists.
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However, this view is not the case. Political satire has played a key role in politics for over 2,400 years, starting with the dramatist Aristophanes, satirizing the leaders of Athens on their misconduct of the Peloponnesian war (Poremba). While most leaders in history saw satire as innocent and juvenile, other leaders perceived it as a threat. Honore Daumier was thrown in prison by King Louis-Phillipe in the early 19th century because he drew a representation of the King as Gargantua (Navasky). As a result of this cartoon, the King reestablished censorship “not of the pen but of the crayon” (Navasky).
He felt threatened enough by a cartoon that he took such extreme action as to throw a caricaturist into prison. In the United States the First Amendment protects satirists. There is a great history of political satirists impacting American politics starting with a founding father, Benjamin Franklin in his satirical article, Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One (Poremba). Franklin articulated the grievances of the American colonists in 1773 and gave the Revolutionaries a direction and focus (Poremba). This work altered the American political perception and pushed them closer to revolution.
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The most effective form of satire, before the wide usage of television, was a political cartoon. They were very effective in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries because of the low literacy rate (Poremba). This visual message could reach a wider audience than just those who could read. Cartoons drawn by Thomas Nast helped shape modern day politics by giving each party an animal to represent them (Shaw). Also, he was effective in bringing down Tammany Hall, a political machine run by the infamous Boss Tweed, by making the illiterate masses aware of the corruption-taking place.
Boss Tweed famously said, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures” (Poremba). Boss Tweed knew the power of an illustration, quickly understood, with a twist of truth and humor. Cartoons have also shaped modern political vocabulary. The term gerrymandering came from a cartoonist in Boston who put a salamander’s tail and head on the map of a district drawn to assist Governor Elbridge Gerry (Poremba). The political cartoon was a way that politicians could defame their rivals.
During the presidency of Andrew Jackson, the Whig party published a cartoon depicting President Jackson wearing a crown and cape while holding a scepter. The caption read “King Andrew. ” This depiction helped to give Jackson the reputation of a forceful and tyrannical leader, which was what the rival Whigs intended (King Andrew the First). Cartoons have such an affect on people because the reader cannot refute the cartoon with a counter argument, as can be accomplished in a letter to the editor. As Professor of Political Science, Victor Navasky said, “There is no cartoon to the editor. (Navasky) The frustration that comes from this dilemma is most likely what infuriated so many world leaders over the years. However, with a population becoming more and more literate political cartoons are started to become a dying art form; they do not have the same effect on the masses as they once did. The rising literacy rate, paired with falling newspaper sales, have caused this decline as the political satirist turn their talents to a whole new digitalized medium. Satire in the past half of a century has boomed.
With new mediums and the ability to reach out to more and more people, satire is playing an even more incendiary role in politics. Through television and the Internet, satire is being seen by thousands of viewers. One modern satirist who utilizes television to satirize politicians is Jon Stewart of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His show brings in an average viewing audience of 1. 8 million per show (Rosenstiel). Likewise, when Stewart and Colbert announced a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, a crowd, estimated at 200,000, filled the National Mall (See Figure 1).
Approximately the same amount of people that showed up to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ’s famous “I have a Dream” speech in 1963. The outreach of his show helps expose hypocrisy to all of America by utilizing extensive video archives and pairing a politician’s previous statement with a contradictory one said by the same politician. As Syracuse University Journalism Professor Hub Brown said, “The stock-in-trade of ‘The Daily Show’ is hypocrisy, exposing hypocrisy. And nobody else has the guts to do it” (Smolkin).
The beauty of satire is that it does not have to be politically correct, so this allows shows like The Daily Show to get down to the truth of a matter in a way that other news sources cannot (Smolkin). That is one of the reasons satire is so effective in promoting political change because it pushes the boundaries (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”). The technological advancements in the last 20 years have allowed satire to expand beyond poking fun into a way to expose political dishonesty. This makes politicians accountable for what they say much like a journalist would (Rosenstiel).
Many of Jon Stewart’s fans view The Daily Show as a news source. While observed by the PEW Research Center in 2007, the top three topic areas covered by The Daily Show were the same topics covered by the mainstream press (Rosenstiel). In another study conducted by the PEW Research Center, they found that when news viewers were given a common knowledge test on current events, 54% of regular viewers of The Daily Show scored in the category of people that had high knowledge of current event, the highest of any news source (Smolkin).
As evident by this study, modern political satire does more than joke about the government; it influences and creates more politically informed voters. For half a century, the television show, Saturday Night Live, has been a consistent force in electoral satire. Every four years around election time the late night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live turns its attention on the political personalities and issues. As a major network show, SNL is available to practically anyone in the country, so when SNL satirizes a political candidate it has a great effect on the public perception.
This phenomena can be seen since the shows first season in 1975 when cast member Chevy Chase depicted president Gerald Ford as a klutz after Ford tripped as he disembarked Air Force One. In actuality Ford was a collegiate athlete, but still the image stuck for the rest of his presidency (Folkenflik). A more recent example of SNL having a direct influence on politics occurred in the 2008 election when SNL held a mock debate between John McCain and Barack Obama (Folkenflik).
Fred Armisen debated a fake John McCain saying he was too inexperienced with “That’s interesting, John, coming from the guy who sang ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’” (Folkenfilk). However, later in the actual debate, presidential candidate Barak Obama almost mirroring the exact words SNL had written, responded to a related criticism by saying “Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, ‘bomb, bomb, bomb Iran'” (Folkenflik). The most well known example in recent years is Tina Fey’s impression of the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, in 2008.
The public knew little about the nominee from Alaska and SNL helped define Palin. Tina Fey portrayed Palin as unintelligent and a poor speaker with a thick Alaskan accent. Shortly after the skit aired, the Holistic Communications Decision Research and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion released a nationwide survey that showed that voters’ opinion of Palin dropped after watching Fey’s impersonation (Folkenflik). SNL’s satire during elections is a consistent force of comedic ridicule that has and will continue to have an influence on voter perception.
Another reason why Fey’s impersonation was so provocative and popular is the instant access to reruns on the Interne. People who missed the show could watch the skit over and over again. While multiple views helped make that video more popular, the Internet is mostly used in political satire to highlight politician’s follies. It further amplifies a political slip-up by giving anyone in the world the power to replay a video or sound bite of a politician’s error as many times as the user wishes. Naturally, satirists have taken this medium and ran with it.
Websites like The Onion or its British counterpart, Private Eye, use the Internet’s universal accessibility to poke fun at politicians for everyone to see (“The Onion- Americas Finest News Source”). With the Internet available to most of the world, it gives satire a whole new way of presenting itself. Along with the expansion of satire also comes a moral question that needs to be asked: When does satire become slander? Satirists walk a fine line between humor and offense; they need to create a reaction without creating outrage.
However, this task is not easy to consistently manage. When a satirist oversteps their comedic bounds a piece of satire may become particularly controversial and all of a sudden, it is no longer just a joke. An infamous example occurred when a Molotov cocktail went through the window of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. A Charlie Hebdo cartoonist named the prophet Muhammad its editor for the week with a picture of Muhammad on the cover and the caption “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing” (Navasky).
An explosive reaction that can come from a piece of satire when a reader is compelled enough by a cartoonist’s work to attempt murder. Are politicians also supposed to go along with the joke? Is there a line to be crossed there, too? One controversy in this category followed the release of a song by the Republican National Committee, “Barack the Magic Negro” sung to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon (“Satire, Race, and the Magic Negro”). The First Amendment protects this type of offensive satire legally, but it is a moral question satirists must consider.
Satire has been an active participant in the government for years, playing the role as the provocateur, the watchdog, the revolutionary, the reformer, and the entertainer. Without satire playing all of these roles, the modern political landscape would not be the same. Since satirists are able to expose the actions and ideas of national and world politicians, they play a key role in the political process by promoting political change and influencing public perceptions. As satire continues to expand its influence on politics one day we might even see President Colbert.