Satire and the ’08 Campaign

Delighted to see Barack Obama win the US Presidential election. This is an election campaign that will be studied at a lot of levels for a long time. In fact, Barack Obama fought two tough campaigns, with the Democratic Party nomination against the wily and well-organised Clintons preceding the Presidential battle. At a first pinch, some of the lessons I would take form it for any future political campaigns are:

  • The use of the Internet and particularly Web 2.0 technologies;
  • The opportunity presented by small donation rather than simply trying to woo big corporate fundraisers;
  • The rise of Silicon Valley as big backers of the Obama campaign from the word go;
  • The cleanness and consistency of the Obama campaign throughout: the ‘Change’ mesage, the look and feel, the focus of the rallies, the get out the vote campaign etc.
  • The wholesale shift of conservative intellectuals, libertarians and Republican moderates like Colin Powell from the Republican camp, and the disappearance of the Reagan coalition into a far-right, small town, Sarah Palin-loving anti-intellectual rump;
  • What it means for Black politics in America to have as the first Black President who is not from the usual camps.

But not to focus on all of that now, Joe Queenan in The Guardian has raised the issue of the role of satire in the ’08 campaign. I think he gives too much to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression and to SNL (a show that has otherwise been off the pace for a long time), and not enough to Jon Stewart and the brilliant Stephen Colbert. One change from the ’04 campaign was that it had become impossible to watch Bill O’Reilly and his ilk with their ridiculous Talking Points after Colbert’s “Word”, which directly parodies such nonsense.

Anyway, here’s Queenan’s point. I wonder what some of these folk will do as GW Bush and the other comedy show fodder leave the building once and for all.

In polls conducted immediately after the Republican national convention in September, John McCain finally overtook Barack Obama and seemed poised to win a trip to the White House this month. He had rallied the party base. He had invigorated the independents. He had won the kudos of the Great Unwashed. And he had firmly established himself in the consciousness of his countrymen as that quintessential American icon: the lone wolf, he who marches to the beat of a different drummer, the maverick.

Then, something truly astonishing occurred. Tina Fey, the lantern-jawed alumnus of Saturday Night Live, and creator of the critically esteemed sitcom 30 Rock, made a return visit to Saturday Night Live and began doing a dead-on impersonation of McCain’s gee-whiz, aw-shucks running mate, Sarah Palin. Her send-up of the intellectually anaemic Alaskan was seen by countless millions on YouTube and soon became the No1 topic of conversation in America. Almost overnight, McCain’s poll numbers began to drop precipitously, as the arrayed forces of electronically transmitted satire rained down on the GOP ticket. Before you knew it, Palin was viewed as a clown, a dolt, a joke, and McCain was condemned as a nitwit for selecting her as his running mate. For the first time in American history, a presidential candidate had seen all his hopes and dreams undone by the sheer emotive power of naked, unalloyed satire.

Obviously, Ms Fey did not accomplish this all by herself. Clearly, the savage nightly attacks by Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart played an important role in softening up the target. Surely the satirical tabloid The Onion should get some credit here. Without a doubt, the withering contempt of Bill Maher and Michael Moore played a vital role in causing the Republican colossus to come crashing to earth.

But the truth is, Moore and Maher and Stewart and Colbert had been flaying the Republican party for years without any notable effect. Not until Tina Fey stepped into the ring and began eviscerating the hapless Palin did the tide truly begin to turn. Like Horatius at the bridge, like William Tell versus the Austrian invaders, like George Washington at Valley Forge, Ms Fey had come to the aid of her country at the moment her country needed her most. She serviced it with a smile.

Whatever one’s political orientation, there can be no denying that 2008 is the year that satire – previously, the weak stepsister of sarcasm – finally came to the fore in American political life, unleashing a tsunami of politically-charged ridicule and invective that has changed the republic forever. This triumph has been a long time in coming.

Satire was notably ineffective when used against Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, the year he won one of the most lopsided victories in history. Satire did not work against Ronald Reagan, universally dismissed as a dunce by pundits, wits and wiseacres. Nor did it have much effect on George HW Bush when he squared off against the mirthless Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Satire was equally impotent when used against George W Bush in 2000 and 2004, despite his big ears and malapropisms and earthy diction and overall resemblance to Alfred E Neuman and the widespread perception among those who ply their trade in the pith industry that he was a hapless dunce.

Why, then, has satire been so effective in 2008, when it had almost no effect on previous races? Two reasons. One: the material is better crafted, researched and delivered than ever before. Colbert and his ilk are simply funnier than Tom Wolfe and PJ O’Rourke and Woody Allen and Mark Twain and all the other satirists who preceded them.

Two, the viral element has come into play, enabling brilliant pieces like Fey’s Sarah Palin shtick to be seen by tens of millions of people who do not want to sit through an entire broadcast of Saturday Night Live. Satire, previously thought of as a harmless derringer or an unreliable fowling weapon, has found a delivery system that renders it lethal. Satire has gone nuclear.

Spoilsports may argue that satire alone could not have wrecked the McCain campaign. Surely, they will argue, the implosion of the housing market, a 40% decline in the value of the Dow wiping out $7tn in shareholder equity, the disappearance of several of the largest banks in the United States, and the loss of millions of jobs have contributed to McCain’s slump in the polls. Surely, the debacle in Iraq, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the inability of the Republican party to bring Osama bin Laden to justice have had some effect on the outcome of the race.

Perhaps. But that effect has been negligible. A presidential candidate can sidestep a controversial issue such as the grim spectre of another Great Depression. A candidate can dance around two failed wars, a trillion-dollar deficit, the instantaneous disappearance of several million jobs, or having a bunch of high-level cabinet posts staffed by clowns.

But not even the most gifted candidate can defend himself against the combined, cohesive forces of unilaterally condescending satire. Those whom the gods would destroy they first make ridiculous. A Great Depression is merely the icing on the cake.