Satire might not sway votes, but that isn’t the point

Comedian Stephen Colbert at the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Reuters

John Oliver’s new program Last Week Tonight is the most recent addition to the parody news genre. Like its predecessors, the show frequently mocks American politics; for example, an attention-grabbing May segment on negative advertisement in the Kentucky Senate race featured full-frontal male nudity.

When journalists cover political satire, a favored angle is to question whether it will influence the outcome on an upcoming election. It makes for a good hook. Implicit in these articles is the incredulity – and sometimes downright disapproval – over the idea that a comedian might impact the political sphere.

High-profile stunts get the same treatment. More than 200,000 people attended Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, while Colbert formed his Super PAC Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow to raise awareness of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Both stunts engendered a chorus of voices asking, “How is this going to affect the vote?”

Almost always, the answer is: in the short term, it won’t.

This does not mean that these programs are somehow missing the mark, nor does it prove that satire is removed from the real world of political action and debate. Rather, it points to the short-sightedness of that particular question, and to our limited understanding of democratic activity.

The problem with the question is that it distills our role in a democracy down to what we do – at most – the one day of the year when we fill out a ballot. In fact, the very idea of a democratic system is premised on the existence of an informed and engaged citizenry (a populace that not only votes, but also thinks, feels, speaks, and agitates).

The more interesting question one could ask of a piece of satire – or any form of political speech – is how it impacts us as citizens over time. On that count, parody news is accomplishing plenty, and John Oliver’s program is a particularly successful one.

Oliver follows the path forged by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. For his part, Stewart parses the mainstream news of the day, often critiquing the sensationalism and laziness of its coverage. The show has also become one of the only places on television (along with The Colbert Report) where academics and other public thinkers are invited on to participate in thorough, nuanced discussions of their ideas.

Studies consistently find that people who watch The Daily Show are far more knowledgeable about political affairs than the average TV viewer. There is some dispute over causality: whether watching the program helps one become well-informed, or whether the already well-informed are the people most attracted to the show. Nonetheless, it provides a home for those seeking political interest and engagement.

Stephen Colbert similarly engages viewers in political affairs, and even invites audience members to participate in his act: in 2012 his fans lined up to donate money to his Super PAC, in order to actively support his critique of American campaign finance law.

Comedian John Oliver takes satire a step further by encouraging activism. David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

Oliver has now distinguished his new program by moving a step closer to activism. Like Stewart, Oliver allows himself to become incensed about an issue – clearly assuming his viewers will, too – but he doesn’t stop there. On multiple occasions, he has concluded his segments by offering instructions to his audience on what they can do to take action.

For example, after a scathing monologue on cable companies’ attempts to pressure the FCC into allowing them to create Internet “fast lanes” for content providers who pay more (which would end so-called “net neutrality”), Oliver gleefully points out that the FCC is actively inviting comments. He then delivers a dramatic speech addressed to Internet commenters:

“We need you to get out there,” he roars, “and for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction. Seize your moment, my lovely trolls. Turn on caps lock and fly my pretties!”

While all three programs address their audiences as engaged citizens, Oliver, in particular, encourages his viewers to flex those muscles.

By all accounts, many thousands have responded – whether through crashing the FCC’s server, donating to the Society of Women Engineers, or writing off-color letters of complaint to the trade association of for-profit colleges.

Certainly, not every viewer complies with these requests, but they remind us that we can speak up and be active. And while critiquing the tactics used in Mitch McConnell’s and Alison Grimes’ Kentucky Senate campaigns is not intended to sway the outcome of their race, it nonetheless impacts civic engagement and participatory democracy.