Sanity rally: Now that we are all friends, what do we do?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – One thing to be said for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Restore Sanity and/or Fear Rally today in Washington: they didn’t pull the transparent trick that Glenn Beck did last month with his Restore Honor Rally.  Beck, the right-wing talker, used his supposedly non-partisan rally to rather blatantly sling a right-wing political agenda. Natch.

Stewart and Colbert stuck to their word, unfortunately. While their three-hour show drew a buoyant and decidedly non-Republican crowd to the National Mall, they didn’t even come close to sending any overt or covert political message. Indeed, the whole spectacle, while immaculately produced, was sort of amazingly content-free.  So tightly scripted, and so scrupulously determined to avoid even oblique political references, the performances -– which included a poetry reading from Sam Watterson, and songs from the O Jays, Cat Stevens, Tony Bennett,  The Roots, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, along with lots of schtick from the two rally stars—at times seemed like an extended and not very funny version of Stewart’s rather unremarkable stint a few years back as host of the Oscars.

The implicit message, one supposed, of this rally is that given the obviously liberal and often courageous and confrontational on-air attitudes of the comic duo, a “sanity” rally in these concluding days of an historic mid-term campaign would somehow be a push-back against two years of frothy, if not lathered-up, conservative resistance to the Obama administration and everything it stands for.

Not much luck.

Only at the very end of the rally, after many had left, did Stewart venture into more political territory, but primarily by attacking the media and decrying what he characterized as a moment of frenetic paranoia. “These are hard times,” he said. “Not the end times.” He blasted the media, especially, cable news for irresponsibly stoking false controversies and needlessly dividing the American people.

“The press can hold a magnifying class to illuminate issues,” Stewart said his rather solemn ten minute closing statement. “Or it can use that glass to set ants on fire… if we amplify everything we hear nothing.”

A true enough proposition. But somewhat naïve or disingenuous to recur to the most routine sort of conventional wisdom —that all passionate pundits are essentially the same, that the only difference between left and right is labels. At least that allusion created some sparks.

Otherwise, it was a somewhat tedious couple of hours from a dais that had little if nothing to do with both the fundamental and sometimes irrational fears and the dampened hopes for sanity that currently roil the American psyche. Nor was it all half as funny as almost any random half hour of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

The crowd, nevertheless, seemed not disappointed at all, and content to just enjoy a mild day among a throng of fellow-thinkers.

Video footage from LA’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Story continues after the jump.

By late Friday night and early Saturday morning, hours before the onset of the rally, hundreds, thousands and then tens of thousands converged on the mall, jamming Washington’s sidewalks, the Metro, busses and crashing local cell phone networks.

While the official theme of the rally was a non-partisan, if not overtly non-political appeal to “sanity” –- to calm and reasoned discourse—there was little doubt that the event was populated primarily by Democrats, liberal Democrats.  A light-hearted and almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed, consistent with an event organized by two comedians, but the signs and placards definitely tilted left of center.

“We the People, Not We the Corporations…Less Hannity More Sanity.. We Have Nothing to Fear Except Fox Itself” were typical of the hand-painted signs that blossomed among the field of thousands.  A plethora of liberal activist groups ranging from those favoring marijuana legalization to those pushing campaign finance reform were on hand to wave the flag, leaflet and recruit.  Others held up signs supporting Obama and praising his health care reform.

Yet, there were also signs, echoing Stewart’s repeated plea that this was all just a “clarion call to sanity” asking those attending to “Chill It” and “Bring it Down a Notch.”

Herein, though, resided the fundamental irony of this odd event.  While it rather reasonably if obliquely mocked the spittle and hyperbole that mars much of current political discourse and over-heated and superficial media coverage that has a direct stake in stoking ratings-friendly partisan wrestling matches, most of these rally-goers come from a constituency that is facing a very likely political bloodbath in less than 72 hours. 

Bringing it down a notch, keeping things calm, cool and cerebral, has been among the traits that have most irked and discouraged President Obama’s Democratic base for the last two years.  With that much-talked about “enthusiasm gap” firing up the Tea Partiers and fueling a probable GOP electoral surge over the Democratic barricades, this final weekend of the campaign might have been much more appropriate for a rally demanding that those political forces considering themselves “sane” -– compared to more frenzied conservatives — ramp things up instead of downshifting. And it might have been more logical, more sane, to have the President himself and not two cable comedians lead the charge.

And while the massive crowd exhibited considerably less of the extreme political theater that has marked more militant and partisan events, such as the anti-war rallies, this rally was still indisputably if unwittingly redolent with a slight whiff of self-righteous smugness, something organic to the central organizing principle of the event.

If those here are “sane,” then by extension those not attending or sympathizing just might be insane -– plain crazy.  Not only does that contradict Stewart’s “Can’t we all get along?” message, but it might also alienate precisely moderate, or “low-information” voters who might see this event as a mass display of Democratic snobbery.

“Poppycock,” exclaimed Marie Fein, a 27-year-old New York office worker who came to D.C. on one of the free buses provided by The Huffington Post (which carted in an estimated 10,000). “This rally is going to help fire up millions seeing it on TV and let them know they are not alone out there, that there are so many others of us who are going to vote Tuesday to end the Tea Party craziness. Most people are sane and they will indentify with us.”

That was hardly a universal conviction, even among the ralliers. “Look, this is going to make people feel good for a couple of hours, including me, but in itself it isn’t going to change much,” said a D.C.-based union organizer who didn’t want to be named.

“The moment this is over, I’m going to be phone-banking all afternoon and night. What counts is not how many people we have out here on the mall today. What counts is how many people we get into the voting booths on Tuesday.”

The word “vote” was never mentioned from the stage.

Marc Cooper is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice and the Director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

More coverage on the Rally to Restore Sanity:
Washington, D.C. – Sanity rally: Now that we are all friends, what do we do?