The enigma behind Colbert is an enigma

Sophia A. McClennon, a professor at Pennsylvania State University
Sophia A. McClennon, a professor at Pennsylvania State University
Posted: October 12, 2012

Colbert's America

Satire and Democracy

By Sophia A. McClennen

Palgrave McMillan. 240 pp. $25.


As the 2012 presidential election approaches, one central question is whether young Americans will turn out in the same numbers as in 2008. Will this "millennial" demographic favor the Democratic ticket by a similarly substantial ratio and help put it over the top in key battleground states against their Republican opponent? In other words, four years later, can young voters decidedly affect the fate of American politics again?

In the days after President Obama's election, the national media concluded that young Americans had finally arisen from their three-decade-long slumber. Now, however, surveys suggest that young people claim they are less likely to vote.

But whether they are galvanized anew into political activism or disillusioned by broken promises, young people continue to tune in to political satire as their one-stop shop for campaign headlines.

In the two elections since 1972 in which young Americans voted at an unusually high level, personality drew them in: former President Clinton in 1992, saxing his way on to MTV, and Obama in 2008, who relaxed on the couches of David Letterman and other comics.

But who has more flair than Stephen Colbert, and is he the most probable candidate, in the long term, for extending the political attentiveness of students and other twentysomethings?

In a comprehensive, erudite, and lucid single volume, Colbert's America, Pennsylvania State University professor Sophia A. McClennen analyzes the cult of Colbertism. Beyond describing Stephen Colbert's singular form of political satire, which lampoons both the punditocracy and the political classes, McClennen thoughtfully considers the nature of young people's modern political engagement. Colbert's America is a book for citizens of every creed who believe we are all entrusted with piloting American democracy.

Specifically, McClennen explores satire as practiced on The Colbert Report as "public pedagogy." We are told on all sides that the United States lacks a truly informed electorate, a notion explored by thinkers such as Neil Postman (see below). And young voters are assumed to be less informed than the typical voter. Yet satirical shows like The Colbert Report, based often on a truly informed approach to current political and social issues, actually can get a lot of teaching in through the side door, so to speak. And McClennen argues that America's youth today are increasingly learning through cultural mechanisms outside the traditional classroom.

McClennen offers a historical overview of Colbert as well as an analysis of the fundamentals driving the Comedy Central program. For instance, she discusses Colbert's emphasis on "truthiness" in American politics, a word the comedian has defined as "what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer, as opposed to what reality will support."

The most important chapter, her final one, evaluates Colbert's impact on the civic involvement of younger Americans.

In the lingo of the prescient philosopher Neil Postman, is Colbert, like so much of contemporary media noise, amusing its viewers (a majority of whom are students) to death - or, instead, is Stephen Colbert, as satirist-in-chief, actually prompting a rallying cry for political reform?

McClennen says, smartly, that Postman, who died in 2003, could not have envisioned the potentially beneficial links between television and new and social media, and how the new communications can sometimes offer enhanced access to high-quality journalism, Web-based petitions, or online voter registration. In this way, Colbert's entertainment genre is designed to identify misinformation and correct it. The result can be far better than entertainment as we know it.

If raising awareness, volunteering, and, ultimately, voting can be fun, McClennen suggests, it will be as a result of figures such as Colbert. She shows examples of how he has used Twitter for political engagement, calling out the falsehoods of elected officials or candidates such as Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

In this respect, Colbert transcends the Postman insistence on the dreary wasteland of TV. (Nonetheless, at least one study shows that Colbert's faux-conservative persona can actually confuse young people into believing he is truly espousing such points of view.)

But the actual impact of Colbert? That remains a could-be. The author is up front about the lack of a clear answer about Colbert's actual impact. No definitive scholarship yet tells us whether he or colleague Jon Stewart can stimulate young voters into real-life political engagement.

The viewers, after all, think for themselves in the end. In the book's last paragraph, McClennan writes that, night after night, Colbert "does a show where he has a bunch of fun and raises viewer awareness of a range of major social issues. Even more, he lets his viewers in on the fun. What they do after they turn off their televisions is up to them."

McClennen deserves credit for a thorough study of Colbert and for reminding us that, although satire may have the potential to teach, Postman's vision is still largely right: Our uninformed citizenry needs a lot of teaching.


Alexander Heffner is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and USA Today.

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