On Tues., Oct. 13, the Democratic Party held its first debate for the 2016 presidential election. On the following Sat., Oct. 17, Saturday Night Live masterfully parodied that spectacle, generating a great deal of buzz.
Most of that buzz was, however, entirely insubstantial, much like the parody itself.
The SNL case is a perfect example of the simple problem that satire has stumbled upon in recent decades: satire discourages discussion and the exchange of ideas.
Of course, political satire has historically been a force for good. It has the power to place the lower and upper echelons of society on the same playing field. Such leveling is necessary for the long-term function of democracy. In a society led by the people for the people, elected officials must not be elevated above those they represent.
Recently, the tradition of political satire continues stronger than ever, most notably with comedic “news” shows. These include the just-finished Daily Show (under Jon Stewart) and Colbert Report, as well as the just-getting-started Last Week Tonight and Daily Show (under Trevor Noah). These shows satirize all aspects of politics and news, filling the classic role of satire by knocking political and media elite down a few pegs.
The relevant way in which these satirical news shows differ from traditional forms of satire is in the sheer number of people they reach. Americans watched the Daily Show and Colbert Report en masse, to the point where the shows came to be regarded by many as legitimate news sources. For some, satirical news programming was the primary, and perhaps only, news source in their lives.
From this context, the dark side of satire has emerged.
When parodying general politics and political figures, it is inevitable that the satire that “news” shows wield will touch upon various political stances or ideologies. In mocking George W. Bush, for example, it is only a matter of time before the Iraq War is mentioned as well. If the targets are politics and politicians, then political viewpoints will eventually enter the crosshairs as well.
By satirizing a particular political stance — intentionally or otherwise — the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver inadvertently guide their viewers away from that stance. It it easy to imagine why. If the smart, funny men on TV say a show is silly, then we are inclined, as viewers, to feel the same way.
Taken on its own, this is of little consequence, but remember that these shows also satirize American politics as a whole, making politics in general distasteful and not worthwhile.
The result of satirists’ open dislike of politics is simple: political disenfranchisement. When the smart, funny men on TV say politics are silly, we start to feel the same way. And once we feel like politics aren’t worthwhile, we avoid them. This is often pointed to as the reason for the atrocious youth turnout rates in the 2004 presidential election, and thus was dubbed “The Daily Show Effect.” Satirical news bashes politics overall, driving us away from it. The truth of this is reflected by today’s political climate, which is increasingly dominated by some bizarre combination of apathy, alienation and disgust.
In the rare events that we do become engaged in political discourse, we are faced with another problem: our lack of knowledge. Satirical news shows do not provide us with enough information to actually hold a discussion on the views they espouse, yet they make us feel as though we are informed. Under these circumstances, any political discourse will be highly insubstantial — rife with factual errors and mired by the participants talking past one another. Not only does political satire discourage the exchange of ideas, but it makes us ill-equipped to debate in the first place.
Ultimately, however, the root cause of this problem lies not with political satire, but with us, the consumers. The Jon Stewarts of the world may discourage political discourse, and they definitely only provide cursory understanding of complex topics, but we alone control how we react to political satire.
When the seasoned news junkie watches MSNBC or FOX, they are aware of the spin that permeates the reporting, allowing them to absorb more information. We must do the same with political satire — we must recognize its spin. This requires us to think critically while we watch satirical news, and process the ideas that are presented so that when the time comes to use our political savvy (i.e. to vote), we can answer the call, rather than make fun of it.