Stephen Colbert is funny and always entertaining, but is his irony-laced satire toxic for democracy?
Numerous scholars like Henry Jenkins often praise "Colbert Nation" for its use of satire to both better inform and politically mobilize its fandom. Like The Daily Show, its 2005 spin-off The Colbert Report has been subject to frequent media studies that suggest these satirical comedy programs attract -- or help create -- better informed citizens. For years, Millenial viewers of satirical news have performed better on knowledge of current political events than viewers of cable news or FOX fans, thanks to the “Colbert Bump” or 2010’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”
Other critics, however, worry that such commodified political irony actually creates politically disengaged Millenials as cynical, passive consumers. Millenial voters have become increasingly disengaged since the first Obama election. An anemic 12% of registered Millenials cast ballots in 2014 Midterm elections... and almost half voted Republican! Despite expectations and self-professed interest, these Colbert Nation Millenials don’t deliver at the polls when it matters.
So what are we to make of this startling discrepancy? Does Colbert’s mass-marketed “truthiness” make us more engaged citizens, or are audiences just passive ironic hipsters "in on the joke" that political awareness won't extend beyond our remote control? Is this "Colbert Nation" a myth for inert Millenial clicktivism? With his move to The CBS Late Show’s more conservative demographic, will Colbert sell-out his satiric edge? Are there rhetorical limits for commodified political satire when its "funny for money" catharsis caters to corporate profits over educating activism?
Sure, it's all just for laughs, but Colbert's influence is very real. I retain hope that recent GOP efforts at disenfranchising young voters -- alongside #BlackLivesMatter activism and Bernie Sanders populism -- might help politically mobilize Millenials to "rock the vote." Millenials have proven more active at the local level, where gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts are mitigated by the rewarding immediacy of community micro-causes. Is it possible for this national trend of Millenial voter apathy to evolve into a political reawakening, or are today’s cynical youth content to knowingly chuckle along with the political inanity from their sofa?
The Colbert persona, a savvy Culturejamming showman, has proven that he successfully appeals to both impulses.