Going beyond humor, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart creates a climate of agreement where the audience and host coalesce around a shared, exasperated vision of politics and its media coverage. Though trenchant in its media criticism, the show’s views on politics are as regimented and self-serving as the news outlets it mocks. Specifically, Stewart presents politics as primarily about process and his show contributes to an overall media climate where the possibility of politics to produce meaningful, systemic change is a joke. Steve Almond has argued recently that Stewart acts as a corporate opiate with his pedestrian and thoroughly inoffensive humor. Stewart’s vision of politics is not argument driven, but people getting along and having a conversation. In fact, Stewart does not “buy into” the left/right divide being a defining fault line in American politics. In his lengthy interview with Rachel Maddow following the much-maligned “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, Stewart suggests the real focus should be on more important and supposedly apolitical divides like “corrupt/non-corrupt” or “extremist/non-extremist”.
Courtesy is a self-evidently important quality, but as the primary goal it reduces real political disagreement to matters of taste, similar to a team you root for. The idea that people have real grievances, and are not merely being jerks or unaware of the other side’s argument, seems to be difficult for Stewart, and The Daily Show as a whole, to grasp. In the included clip on the Occupy Wall Street protests, Stewart points out protests are about optics and not just substance. When looking at a man defecating on a police car this point is undeniably funny. Yet, an obsession with optics is all Stewart and The Daily Show can provide. Substance, as indicated in the lack of any at the 2010 Stewart rally, is too divisive and suspect. While cable news feed into extremes, The Daily Show creates an equally dangerous impression that our political differences are only on the surface, somehow made up and easily solved by making fun of freaks and weirdos. By limiting the possibility of politics, both The Daily Show and the media it ridicules contribute to a political culture of disillusionment and disempowerment.