What follows is a guest blog post written by my friend and former colleague Scott J. Hammond, Professor of Political Science at James Madison University. He is co-editor of the excellent two-volume Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought.
Four years ago this October Jon Stewart, the renowned television comedian and satirist, organized a rally on the federal mall in Washington D.C. that was actually meant to be taken seriously, a short step away from his comedic persona as anchorman of a faux news hour. Frustrated by the relentless and shrill pitch reached by ideologues drumming their insistent polemics from the outer fringes of American politics, Stewart sought to draw upon his considerable popularity among television viewers toward the promotion of a less strident tone in political rhetoric, hoping replace the extremists din, usually sounded through mutual demonization and self-serving hyperbole, with the practices of civil discourse marked by mutual respect and honest discussion. Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” was thus intended to encourage reasonable and sincere conversation about political issues and social concerns, an effort humorously accented by the presence of his Truthiness, walking parody Stephen Colbert, providing counterpoint with his piggy-backed “March to Keep Fear Alive,” thus was delivered the Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear.
Those who managed to actually attend the event could not help but notice that the audience was, based on all available evidence, universally left-wing, a noticeable cohort seemingly by all appearances on the ideological extreme, the left extreme, from what could be gathered by placards, banners, signs, buttons and other forms of self-advertising attire. Nevertheless Stewart’s effort has to be appreciated for what it was, an entertaining attempt to remind his national audience that our problems can’t be solved by the solutions of one side winning against the other’s—especially if the two sides view the proposals of the other side as utterly without merit—but through the mutual understanding that can only arise from a patient willingness to consider the possibility that those on the other side of the issue might indeed have at least some valid points, even if they disagree on the larger issue, and may in at least some respects also provide insight into working solutions for our problems. In other words, perhaps the most important message conveyed by Stewart and Colbert is that no one side can provide all the answers, and that there are very few positions, at least in democratic politics that are without any merit whatsoever. Even our political opponents might every now and again be right about at least a few things, and we, flawed human beings that we are, can at times be wrong, and about many things. If we move away from self-involved extremism and toward a more measured approach to political dialogue, we may be able to appreciate the complexities of our lives and the need for a reasonable way to manage our troubles.