Are you as tired as I am of magazine articles that deliver far less than their headlines promise? Last week, I proposed a solution to Alternet’s Mystery of the Whiny Conservative. Below, I attempt to provide the “unified theory” that the Atlantic’s Oliver Morrison in Waiting for the Conservative Jon Stewart: A unified theory of why political satire is biased toward, and talk radio is biased against, liberals in America does not.
Morrison does identify one of the two relevant differences between American conservatives and liberals – the latter understand irony. But he fails to note that while conservatives appear oblivious to irony in American politics, many liberals, especially young ones, refuse to see anything else. He also ignores the other crucial discrepancy which is that both economic injustice and the ecological crisis deeply disturb liberals.
Why do these differences spell a dull evening for a conservative comedian’s audience and low ratings for liberal talk show hosts? Starting with comedy, which, despite being known as notoriously difficult to define, often depends to a very significant degree on upsetting expectations. While watching a movie, both liberals and conservatives may laugh when a prima donna, hitting a high-note, gets a pie in the face. The humor derives from the fact that nobody – not the singer, not the opera audience on-screen, not even the real-life cinema goers – expected it.
Political humorists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert upset their audience’s expectations of how politicians should act. Their shtick is remarkably similar and works every time. The hosts play video of politicians, usually but not always Republicans, making grandiose statements.
Stewart and Colbert then show headlines or play additional clips in which the politician speaks or acts in a way that is directly counter to the first statement, otherwise contravenes public interest, or is idiotic. Liberals find this funny because while their ideal “good government” representative, is honest, trustworthy, and intelligent, the clips in which politicians demonstrate mendacity, cupidity, and stupidity confirm our wholly unsentimental view of conservative politicians.
Conservatives, by contrast, don’t perceive any conflict between the bold and compassionate man of peace their Senator feigns to be and his support for cutting capital gains taxes, food stamps, and bombing Iran. When it comes to democratic politicians who, like conservatives, often betray stated principles, conservative comics might be expected to find fertile ground. To the extent that democrats act in ways contrary to their stated views, however, they usually conform to the wishes of well-heeled more conservative-leaning donors rather than the general public. Pointing to democrats acting like republicans is far more likely to elicit nods of understanding than guffaws from conservative viewers.
Conservative comics may not be making Jon Stewart or even Carrot Top money but their commercial radio and television talk show hosts sure are. By contrast, MSNBC’s ratings are in the toilet and liberal talk radio has all but disappeared. For conservative hosts, their audience’s failure to perceive irony and lack of compassion are a godsend. No matter how outrageous their claims or how completely they blame victims for their ill-fortune, conservative hosts rest assured that listeners and viewers will take their perorations at face value.
Liberals, however, will not support tendentious talk shows. There are two reasons. First, our finely honed sense of irony causes many of us to question the sincerity of anybody who expresses views too fervently – even if we share them. Second, we do feel sad – often painfully – when we think about hungry children, homeless veterans, and cancer victims who aren’t receiving treatment.
This brings us right back to Stewart and Colbert. Their ironic detachment, their snarkiness, their pox on both your houses approach attenuates the truth of what Americans are doing to each other and to our environment. This same factor explains the relative success of NPR and PBS when it comes to wooing a liberal audience.
Just as humor and cynicism blunt the impact reports of torture, homelessness, gun carnage, and global warming have on caring liberals so do the measured tones, unaccented voices, and studious impartiality of public radio and television hosts. Since they don’t seem to feel sad, angry, or guilty about the invasion of Iraq, strip mining in national parks, and the refusal of Republican governors to expand medicaid, maybe we shouldn’t feel sad, angry, or guilty either. Liberals prefer ironic humorists and humorless dispassionate news readers because they insulate us from an unbearable reality.