Super PACs and Satire

13 01 2012

Last night (January 12, 2012), Stephen Colbert announced that he is “forming an exploratory committee to lay the ground work” for his “possible candidacy for the President of the United States of South Carolina.” Colbert is not the first comedian to make an actual run for president in a primary election.  Pat Paulsen pioneered the tactic, starting in 1968 and running again in 1972, ’80, ’88, ’92 and ’96.  Paulsen took second to Bill Clinton in the 1996 New Hampshire primaries, beating out some real politicians.  Pat Paulsen’s campaigns, while legitimate (in that he was really on primary ballots) were, at their core, satire.  He used the platform of the campaign to engage in double-talk and tongue-in-cheek attacks on other candidates which essentially mocked the politicians and the political process.

The idea for Paulsen to run for President was proposed by The Smothers Brothers when he was a cast member of their show.

Satire, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “trenchant wit, irony or sarcasm used to expose or discredit vice or folly.”  While satire often employs humor, it does not always have to be funny.  A classic example of literary satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he mocks the political stances on Irish poverty of the time by suggesting that the indigent Irish eat their children.  The pamphlet is not exactly a knee-slapper.  He is not truly suggesting this as a solution for starvation, he is proposing this exaggerated solution in order to expose the hypocrisy of how the situation was being treated.  For satire to be effective, as Swift’s was, it needs to be exaggerated enough to not be taken as “real,” and be targeted enough that the viewer or reader knows exactly what is being ridiculed and why.

Colbert is not the first to run for President as satire.  This isn’t even his first time running—he ran in the South Carolina primaries in 2008 as well.  While he and others, like Paulsen, are certainly out to mock the policies and campaign hypocrisy of politicians overall, Colbert’s run this time is more specifically targeting the anonymous and unlimited corporate funding of campaigns made possible by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  This decision held that a corporation is legally defined as a person, and is therefore entitled to the right to free speech, which it exercises through money.

Since early in this election cycle, Colbert has been satirically exposing the folly of this decision which culminated with the establishment of a Super PAC (Political Action Committee).  Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow has already used its considerable funds to run campaign ads encouraging voters in the Ames straw poll to write in Rick Parry (rather than the actual candidate, Rick Perry).  But more than simply purchasing air-time, Colbert has exposed the ease with which these organizations are formed by doing it on air, with the help of legal (and on-air) advice from Trevor Potter, former FEC chair and general counsel for John McCain’s 2008 campaign.

Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert, and John Stewart celebrate after handing over control of Colbert's Super PAC to Stewart on The Colbert Report, January 12, 2012.

In recent days, polling results have shown Stephen Colbert with a higher percentage than actual candidate John Huntsman, which has prompted this move to “candidacy.”  It has also provided the opportunity to show the fuzziness of the requirement that Super PACs cannot coordinate with any one candidate.  Last night, before announcing his exploratory committee, Colbert transferred control of Americans for a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow to Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show (which airs immediately prior to The Colbert Report, both on Comedy Central, and is where Colbert was employed before his current show).  The transfer takes only one form and two signatures, and making the transfer to his friend and business partner, on air, serves to highlight the laughable “lack” of coordination between Super PACs and candidates across the board.

Through exaggeration, sarcasm, irony and humor, satire can expose the folly and hypocrisy that underlie day to day life, whether it is in politics or business or interpersonal relationships.  But, as with deconstruction, it stops after the attitude or behavior in question is dismantled.  Colbert and Stewart can point out the abuses by various politicians and corporations of the Citizens United decision, but as comedians and satirists, they would be equally obliged to mock whatever hidden ideology might be behind any proposed solution.

Of course, this is an idealized view of satire—a definition of what satirists are supposed to be.  But they are also people.  Colbert and Stewart have deeply held beliefs about the direction politics should take, about corporate involvement in campaigns and how that should be regulated.  Moral satirists, like journalists, have a fine line to walk between deconstruction and activism.\

At the moment, Colbert seems happy to pick apart.  In the past, he and Stewart have sought to build up.  Their October 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive,” had a fairly direct message after all the satire on stage:  one of civic unity in an era of divisive politics and soundbites.  Jon Stewart’s own behavior at times makes more of an impact as an example regarding this sentiment.  On January 11, 2012 he interviewed Republican Senator Jim Demint and managed to have an exceptionally civil discussion even though the two disagreed on the economic solutions Demint was proposing.

The power of satire is not something that can be found in and of itself.  It needs both behavioral and activist support to make quantifiable and effective changes in the folly it seeks to expose.  If you’re looking for examples of how this can work, you don’t need to look any further than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

Vote Colbert, South Carolina!

Note:  I did not include any links to video clips from The Colbert Report or The Daily Show mentioned in this blog.  They are available online at and at www.colbertnation.comBe warned, the clips contain advertisements (Comedy Central is, after all, a commercial enterprise).  Contemporary Critique in no way endorses the Jumbaco.




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