Wisconsin Protesters Bizarro Tea Party?

Is Jon Stewart a useful idiot?

On last night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart argued that “the Wisconsin protests against Scott Walker’s plan to cut benefits and collective bargaining rights turns into the Bizarro Tea Party.”

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Digby is quite displeased with Stewart, both for this particular bit and for what she sees as an increasing tendency of his to make fun of ordinary people fighting for what they believe in, regardless of the merits of their cause.

I’m so glad that we have Jon Stewart around to reduce all political activities of ordinary people into a clown show. It makes it much easier to maintain our ironic distance. Silly people making noises in public is really beneath all smart liberals like ourselves. The only respectable way for people to engage in politics is to let Jon Stewart explain it all to us in our special coded hipster humor . . .


[H]e’s telling liberals (nobody else cares what he thinks) that it’s more important to behave in a dignified, fair fashion than to stand up for your beliefs in a way that could be perceived as unseemly or one-sided. That makes you as bad as the other side.

While Stewart and I tend to disagree on politics, we’re generally on the same side on the “civility” issue.  While it’s partially a class thing, with educated people used to debating issues within certain bounds aghast at the boorishness of mass movements, it’s actually more than that. Digby’s next paragraph shows why:

Except, of course, it really doesn’t. It’s really about what you’re fighting for. Tea partiers were trying to stop the federal government from reforming our health care system so that middle class workers will not go broke or die if they get sick. The Wisconsin protesters are trying to stop the Republican governor from making it illegal for them to belong to a union so that they can live a decent middle class life. Can we all see the pattern here? I’m sorry that people are misbehaving and failing to have the Oxford style debate that Stewart seems to think we should have, but this is a big argument that’s taking place and I’m fairly sure that it’s not going to be resolved by having some elite representatives of both sides sitting around Charlie Rose’s table hashing it all out and then going out for drinks afterwards. Neither do I think that’s what’s important. If the Tea partiers had been well-behaved, would it have made their noxious politics any better? I don’t think so.

But here’s the thing: If we all agreed on which causes were worthwhile and which were destructive to society, we wouldn’t need to have debates.  Alas, we don’t. Those of us on the other side of the Wisconsin debate see the protesters as disrupting the democratic process, breaking their social contract, and rent-seeking. Those of us on the other side of the fight over government bailouts saw moral hazard being thrown out the window, rewarding people who had been greedy and imprudent at the expense of those who’d played by the rules and sacrificed. Those of us who opposed ObamaCare . . . well, we weren’t exactly a coherent group. As for myself, I saw it marginally lowering freedom while doing nothing to solve the underlying crisis.

Digby’s also wrong here, at least anecdotally:

Calls for”civility”are usually just a way to shut people up and sadly, I’m fairly sure that the only people who listen to Stewart are liberals who are getting the idea that it’s wrong to get in the streets or call out the other side in rough language. Conservatives just think he’s a useful idiot.

Granting that I’m an outlier in all manner of ways, I’m a regular viewer (via TiVo-delay, meaning I won’t actually watch last night’s episode until tonight) and frequently pass along his videos here.  So does my co-blogger, Doug Mataconis.

The reason I watch Stewart (and Stephen Colbert, who I’ll turn to shortly) and not more vitriolic liberal comics like Bill Maher is precisely because of his civility. While his bits are aimed at people who generally agree with him, he’s not insulting to those who don’t. He’s welcoming and engaging conversation, treating his audience like intelligent, decent people. We tend not to agree on the issues but he rightly calls out the BS on both sides. Given his political leanings, he naturally sees more of it on the Right than the Left.  But he at least tries to be intellectually honest and consistent in his principles.

The same is true, incidentally of blogs, Twitter, and other online conversation forums. I eagerly follow those to my left and, indeed, read more from the other side than my own. But I quickly lose interest in those who are preaching to the choir — and immediately stop reading those who assume those who disagree with them are venal or stupid. (For that matter, one of the reasons I follow relatively fewer conservatives is that, alas, far too many of them assume those who disagree with them are venal or stupid.)

Finally, I’m a bit bemused by Digby’s close:

This is why Colbert’s satire is so much more effective and, frankly, much braver. His satire is firmly aimed at the right, so he cannot take both sides. That’s why it works — it takes a position. By contrast, I’m increasingly not finding Jon’s church-lady finger wagging all that funny, much less cool, and I fast forward though his opening segments more often than not. If I wanted a nightly lecture on proper behavior I’d consult Miss Manners or go to church.

Last September, I wrote a piece titled Jon Stewart vs. Stephen Colbert, noting that,

During the last couple years of the Bush administration, I found Colbert’s show much funnier than Stewart’s.   The faux Bill O’Reilly character was perfect for the time, providing both pretty sharp satire and yet enough warmth to make the jokes appealing to those, like myself, who voted for Bush and supported many of his policies.

There have been plenty of great moments on the show since, most notably his Operation Iraqi Stephen stint and his support for the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Team. But, there, he largely stepped outside the confines of his character and just used his enormous improvisational talents and likability to good affect.

Stewart, meanwhile, has truly elevated his performance during the Obama administration. After a few awkward weeks of mostly making the show about the mess that the Republicans have left him, he’s been arguably Obama’s most effective critic. While obviously supporting the president’s agenda, he’s been merciless about dubious claims, absurd policies, and a general lack of leadership. Not always needing to be “in character” — or even funny — he’s able to bring the full force of his talents to bear in dissecting the news.

I still watch both shows. Colbert is a great talent and is just enormously likable. But the faux right wing character limits him.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Stewart makes fun of political and social loonies, he’s done the same with the left and various other cranks, it’s just the political right constantly provides more inviting targets. It’s Willie Sutton, that’s where the humor is.

  2. Is this REALLY so hard to understand?

    Reasonable people hate the Tea Party’s outlandish bullcrap, and the liberals’ outlandish bullcrap. I was just as embarrassed to see what’s happening in Wisconsin as I was when I saw the TP’s ignorant crap.

    There’s a reason “elites” have “Oxford-style debates”. Because they work.

    And maybe… just maybe… these hypothetical people are “elites” for a reason?

  3. michael reynolds says:

    And maybe… just maybe… these hypothetical people are “elites” for a reason?


  4. Murray says:

    Actually Stewart pointed out the extent of the mess on both side of the conflict (there never was a debate).

  5. DougJ says:

    Meh, the problem with the teatards wasn’t their lack of civility, the problem was they were saying things like “keep your soshulism out of my Medicare.”

    And if they had actually been getting their jobs and benefits cut — if they were actually arguing about something that was happening rather than something they heard on Glenn Beck — I wouldn’t have begrudged them anything but the signs claiming Obama was born in Kenya.

  6. Murray says:

    I think you misunderstand the Colbert character. Stephen describes him as “well intentioned, poorly informed, high status … idiot”, which is broader than just right-wing punditry.

    Although he initially was very focused on politics, he always looked for other avenues. I personally enjoy when he goes after religious bigotry. He is obviously very interested in religion in general and it is particularly funny to see for example creationists being ridiculed by someone who teaches Sunday school :o)

  7. James Joyner says:


    I still watch and enjoy Colbert. But his satire was more enjoyable under Bush — and I’m a guy who voted for Bush twice. It’s just hard to lampoon Obama as a caricature of a right-winger.

  8. Stewart is spot-on in his criticism of comparisons to Cairo, Tunisia, etc.

  9. tom p says:

    Yeah… “Health care is a mess! We must do something about it!”

    But “Obama was born in Kenya!!!”

    JJ: do you see the problem we have?

  10. Steven Plunk says:

    As for Stewart and Colbert you can keep ’em. Neither is really that witty and both are tiresome.

    I don’t get Digby’s claim that the Tea Party was not well behaved or had noxious politics. The Tea Party was very well behaved and their politics struck a chord across the nation as people are realizing how bad our fiscal house has been managed. The misbehaving factions are the people using terms like ‘teatards’. I recall similar name calling in junior high.

    Protests are becoming fashionable again for one reason, they seem to work. They worked for the Tea Party. The problem for the Wisconsin protesters is their cause has little merit or sympathy from the public.

  11. reid says:

    SP: You really seem to live in an alternate reality. I don’t understand it.

  12. tom p says:

    And earlier today I read this:

    “So increased federal taxes cause ever-decreasing federal outlays? You guys should start shouting that from the rooftops. No republican will ever win another election, if true.”

    Now, an intelligent human being might say, “Wow, that does not meet my preconceived notions…. I wonder why that would be?”

    But instead we get, “That does not correlate with my belief system, therefor I will ignore that fact.”

    Gee JD, has it occured to you that people who are ACTUALLY serious about the debt, might increase taxes AND>>>> decrease spending?

    Wowwww…. what a novel idea. I am sure Doug M. is shocked…. SHOCKED…. at that possibility……

  13. tom p says:

    “The Tea Party was very well behaved and their politics struck a chord across the nation as people are realizing how bad our fiscal house has been managed.”

    Yeah…. right…. that is why they all voted Democratic. Steve, do you even read yourself?

  14. James Joyner says:

    Testing new comment interface.

    Is this thing any good.

    Lord, I hope so.

  15. Steven Plunk says:

    reid and tom p,  Your criticism lacks substance.  Of course I read what I write and looking back at it again it's correct.  The Tea Party was well behaved, their protests worked, the fiscal situation has been and is now a mess, and the polls show little support for the union demonstrators in Wisconsin.  If you could simply prove those wrong your criticism might have merit until a counter argument is made.
    My reality is one of a business owner and community voluteer.  20+ years of studying government and how it works.  My politics are mainstream as evidenced by the last election cycle.  Any other questions or just more veiled insults?

  16. reid says:

    SP: I know my criticism lacks substance.  You seem so detached from reality as I think most people see it that there's no point in trying.  Cancel that: Since it's an easy one, there's a post on this very site right now that discusses a poll supporting the protesters.

  17. Matt B says:

    Sweet baby yes! +1 to new comment system!
    And Steward is right on both counts. The sooner that both sides (tea party & whatever the libreal protest — and Wisconson won't be the last) can realize that they are protesting in good faith (i.e. they really believe in their goals, and that there are rational foundations for their concerns), there a real possibility of getting to productive solutions.
    Of course, up until then, it's all about who has teh realz Um-er-I-cans.

  18. Matt B says:

    <i>My politics are mainstream as evidenced by the last election cycle.</i>
    Does that mean that you weren't in the mainstream between 2006 and 2010? And if the Dem's hold the white house in 2012, and retake seats, does that mean that you're out of the mainstream again?

  19. An Interested Party says:

    "…as people are realizing how bad our fiscal house has been managed."
    Funny how many of them didn't seem to realize this until there was a Democrat in the White House…
    "The problem for the Wisconsin protesters is their cause has little merit or sympathy from the public." 
    It really is a shame how polls have a liberal bias…
    "The misbehaving factions are the people using terms like ‘teatards’. I recall similar name calling in junior high." 
    You seem to conveniently  forget the numerous juvenile terms applied to the president as well as silliness like the "Democrat" party…perhaps it would be too mature of you to admit that misbehaving occurs on both sides of the political divide… 

  20. Steve Plunk says:

    Matt, Fair enough question.  First let's put my statement in the context of being a response to someone claiming I live in an alternate reality.  My response was to explain a bit about myself.
    In any given election I vote mainstream candidates of the two major parties that generally split the electorate.  In the last election many of my preferred candidates won and many of them won on issues that I support.  It's not just the candidates but the issues as well.  I'm not claiming those on the opposite side of the issues are out of the mainstream but just pointing out that the results would support my claim of being in it.
    So when someone goes off on the tired rant of 'what reality are you living in' or 'what planet have you been living on' I see it as just lazy thinking.  Rather than formulate a reasonable response why not just disparage the person you disagree with?

  21. Steve Plunk –  I admire the good fight, it's getting harder and harder.
    Matt B, you're confusing mainstream with being in power.  Those aren't synonyms.  Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were in power but damned if they were ever mainstream.  The populace and their representatives are getting ever more polarized which is a sad unfortunate aspect of where we are today.  Not sure how to fix it, not even sure we should fix it.  What advocates on both sides forget is our form of government is designed to prevent large shifts in policy unless there is substantial agreement.  Everyone seems to think they stand in the center or close to it when in fact we are receeding from each other just like all the galaxies in the universe.  But I digress.

  22. Steve Plunk says:

    AIP,  So you agree the fiscal house is in disarray?  Like the Tea Party says?  As for the poll I relied on a different one.  Dueling polls I guess.  As for the juvinile name calling the only person I can be responsible for is myself and I expect others to show me that respect.  Is that too much to ask in this age of new civility?
    JJ,  I hate to complain but the new interface is giving me problems in a few ways.

  23. An Interested Party – Bullshit.  You can see myself, Drew, Steve Plunk, Steve Verdon and many others who were bitching rather loudly about many Bush initiatives to spend money, TARP, etc if you want to bother to check the archives.  Hell's bells man, where do you think the term RINO comes from?  When faced with one party that wants to grow government and another party that wants to grow government even faster, who's really providing an honest assessment of what is going on.  Half the commenters here keep throwing out contemptible nonsense about Republicans wanting to starve children and kill old people, despite FEDERAL SPENDING RISING 70% SINCE 2000.
    Weird, isn't it?

  24. reid says:

    As for the poll I relied on a different one.

    You're the one that claimed that the polls show little support for the protesters.  Since you've been shown that that's quite a dubious claim, will you admit you were in error?

  25. Matt B says:

    @CharlesA – Matt B, you're confusing mainstream with being in power.  Those aren't synonyms. 
    No, I was suggesting that Steve P's statement that <i>My politics are mainstream as evidenced by the last election cycle.</i> was making that mistake. I think attempting to correlate any election results as "mainstream" is a mistake in the first place. My questions were pointing out that fact.
    Nor is it possible to easily say any one politician is out of the mainstream. First of all, you didn't indicate which mainstream. Depending on the position, the expectation is that they will represent a *specific* mainstream. Pretending that there is an easily identifiable "American" mainstream is a mistake.
    More so, "mainstream" shifts depending on the issue. A conservative might be in the "mainstream" (as defined by national polling) on defense spending and woefully "out of step" on abortion and gay rights. Reid, Pelosi, Bush, Paul and God help me,  even Michelle Bachman is in the mainstream on somethings.

  26. André Kenji says:

    Stewart is right: tea partiers have no clue about what they are talking about. Their signs in the demonstrations are infantile, and their main complain about HCR looks like something from spoiled brats: ANY healthcare system in the world has rationing, private or government owned. Medicare probably is the only exception, and that´s why it´s unsustainable.

  27. Stan says:

    charles austin, when you talk about the increase in federal spending since 2000, you seem to have forgotten that we're now waging two wars, and that military spending has gone up from 3% of the GDP in 2000 to 4.6% at present.  Did you object to this?  Or is it just spending on social problems that you dislike?  You also failed to mention that we're in the midst of a serious recession, and that a lot of the stimulus money went into propping up state governments.  Are you really arguing that the Feds should have sat by and see the states lay off scads of people in the midst of a recession?  Do you think that would have been good economic policy?  If so, why? And finally, when it comes to contemptible actions, how would you describe Arizona's decision to deny coverage for organ transplants to people on Medicaid? 

  28. James Joyner says:

    Checking to see if <b>boldface</b> and other <a href="https://www.outsidethebeltway.com">HTML</a&gt; commands work.

  29. André Kenji says:

    Federal spending is bigger because most of them is biased toward geezers, and there are a lot more of them than in 2000.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    "Hell's bells man, where do you think the term RINO comes from ?"
    Ohhhh…so than the entire Republican leadership must be composed of RINOs, as they certainly haven't presented any realistic plans to balance the budget…
    "…despite FEDERAL SPENDING RISING 70% SINCE 2000."
    Once again, where is that increase in spending going?  The War on Terror?  Health care costs?  Welfare Queens driving Cadillacs?  Where?

  31. stan, no, I don't think I've forgotten.  I believe I referenced 9/10/2001 in this or another thread, but even the rather sizeable increase in military spending doesn't begin to address the deficit.  As far as propping up state governments, goddman right, let 'em succeed or fail on their own, moral hazard and all that.  That is not what the federal government is for.  Doesn't limited government with enumerated powers mean anything anymore?  You want the federal government to backstop everything, but who's going to backstop the federal government?  Or perhaps you think hyperinflation is a good thing, because I don't see the debt being repudiated.  But it is one or the other.  FWIW, governments create more recessions than they fix.
    As for Arizona's decision regarding what they will pay for, I don't know all the facts, but I am quite certain that it is a problem for Arizona and its citizens to sort out.

  32. An Interested Party – if you read carefully, you'll see many of us are just as unhappy with Repuiblicans as Democrats, it's just that you're more sensitive to attacks on your tribe.

  33. anjin-san says:

    > Neither is really that witty and both are tiresome.
    Actually they are both that witty. It was fun watching Bill OReilly, notorious for beating up his guest, sit there in obvious fear Stewart was going to cut him up. Hey, you have, um, Glenn Beck, I guess.
    It's a small man who won't give another credit where credit is due. But if the shoe fits, wear in.

  34. anjin-san says:

    <b>Can we have a preview????</b>

  35. anjin-san says:

    > bitching rather loudly about many Bush initiatives to spend money, TARP
    One of the few times Bush was right about spending. The freaking banking system was headed for a cascade failure. Hello depression.

  36. michael reynolds says:

    It's actually just hard to lampoon Obama, period.  He has very few mannerisms, and those he has tend to be a bit dull.  We're more than two years in and we don't have a sort of Dana Carvey style precis of the guy.
    Ford was the same, so Chevy Chase just did a non-impression impression.  I wonder how people did with Ike, because he strikes me as very similar in terms of not really offering an easy handle.  Nixon was the mother lode.  Even I can do Nixon.  

  37. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    As for Stewart and Colbert you can keep ‘em. Neither is really that witty and both are tiresome. 
    and how many liberal writers does it take to screw in these burnt bulbs? wr?
    Ok Jon, get that stupid wild eyed, donkey poop eating grin on and make sure you say F**K real good…..
    OK Steven, act like the way we see conservatives….
    sigh…..give me Red Eye and some improve or Glenn doing spooky dude and the Joe klein snob voice any day over the new stoner indoctro repedo…
    I love when he pulls out the pipe:)

  38. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    It's actually just hard to lampoon Obama, period. 
    lol, wait till I get funding for my spoof of the Mummy……

  39. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    It's a small man who won't give another credit where credit is due. 
    Jon stewart was awsome in The Waterboy, now he sucks….

  40. Steve Plunk says:

    reid,  Like I said, there is another poll that shows support for Walker's position.  That's not an error.

  41. reid says:

    SP:  You said:

    The problem for the Wisconsin protesters is their cause has little merit or sympathy from the public.

    which is false.  Anyone reading that would assume that polls would show a small percentage of people showing support, when in at least one poll it's 61%.  So you wonder why I say you live in a an alternate reality?  At the least, you cherry pick your figures to support your beliefs without mentioning contrary data, which is dishonest.  (And the one poll that does support your position is questionable; see the top post here about it.)  You'd earn a bit of respect if you'd at least admit you were wrong.

  42. gVOR08 says:

    "Civility" is a red herring. I don't care about civility. Example: John Boehner said that Obama had added 200,000 to the federal workforce and he, Boehner, didn't care if some of them lost their jobs. Let's ignore the incivility of his 'let them eat cake' callousness. Let's focus on the fact that the real number is 58,000 and Boehner lied. No one should get in trouble for telling the truth, no matter how incivil their delivery. And no one should get a pass on lying.

  43. An Interested Party says:

    "…it's just that you're more sensitive to attacks on your tribe." 
    Not at all…the problems have indeed been brought to us by both parties (as well as the people who voted for the individual politicians)…but the thing is, what you seem to want, you are never going to get, as politicians who would advocate and implement such policies will never have a chance of getting elected in any substantial numbers…the smaller government that you so long for is the real magical pony…

  44. anjin-san says:

    > Let's focus on the fact that the real number is 58,000 and Boehner lied. 
    And the fact that he voter for quite a few Bush deficits…

  45. Wiley Stoner says:

    Stewart and Colbert work for COMEDY CENTRAL. Is there some part of that which is difficult to understand? Did anyone tell you folks if you eat certain kinds of mushrooms you might experience visions and hear thing which are not real? These are not news people, they are comedians. Similar to those who work at ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. You know, comdians.

  46. sam says:

    "These are not news people, they are comedians. Similar to those who work at ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN. You know, comdians."
    In contrast, I suppose, to the deep thinkers on Fox and Friends. One of the things I miss about Olbermann is his Steve Doucy-as-Clem Kadiddlehopper turn. Spot on.

  47. Davebo says:

    Spot on Sam.
    When the media becomes the maniacs what happens?
    Jim's party happens, that's what.  I doubt Jim likes it, and where does he have to turn?  Nowhere.
    Doug however is a totally different story.

  48. anjin-san says:

    > Stewart and Colbert work for COMEDY CENTRAL. Is there some part of that which is difficult to understand?
    A little to difficult to understand why comedians are much better journalists than the crew at Fox. Well, its not that hard to understand. You are the audience at fox. Water seeks its lowest level.

  49. matt says:

    I knew once Obama started putting the true costs of two wars and medicare part D on the books that the Republicans would use it against him by claiming the related increases in deficit were purely Obama’s fault…