We live in a golden age for political humor. Every night, more Americans tune in to watch Stewart and Colbert than Leno. The Onion is doing well enough to pilot a TV show. Saturday Night Live finally has someone with a decent Obama impression. There is only one thing missing: funny Republicans.
This phenomenon is recent. President Reagan, whatever you think of him, knew how to deliver a punchline. Even Bob Dole, by all accounts not the most exciting man, could relax and crack a joke or two. But for the last decade or so, Democrats have maintained a stranglehold on comedy. Republicans got so painfully dry in the last election that they merited investigation by Psychology Today. This humor gap is not just painful for people listening to Republican speeches – it leaves all of us a little worse off.
Professor Robert Hariman, Chair of the Communication Studies Department here on campus, contends that political humor is not merely funny. In an article published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech back in 2008, Hariman advanced the theory that political humor is essential for maintaining a healthy public democracy. “Even if we had nothing but good quality serious discourse,” says Hariman, “we would be worse off than if we had bad discourse and people making fun of it.”
The key is that political humor is more than just a way to release some of the stress that accumulates when debating policies of great national importance. Humor allows us to be blunt, instead of having to speak in the coded language that dominates politics. President Obama, for instance, could never really respond to birther allegations without looking petty or frivolous. At the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, though, he is allowed to make jokes about it in a way that responds effectively to criticism.
It is the same sort of thing Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do every night. It can be difficult to have a real and serious conversation with opponents who are either ridiculous or being purposefully obtuse. There is no point in trying to engage, for instance, Rush Limbaugh in a real conversation. He is much more interested in ranting and getting attention for his “brand” than he is in having an actual discussion on the issues of the day. Hariman puts it like this: “If someone is being flagrantly, willfully, viciously stupid, it is hard to argue with that and talk them out of that. Humor becomes almost the only way you can counteract that kind of discourse.”
The question, then, is why conservatives seem to have lost their collective funny bone. If humor is so critical to political discourse, then it makes no sense that conservatives seem to be making little effort to employ humor to their advantage.
Hariman, though, notes that Republicans do not necessarily crack less jokes than their left-wing counterparts. They make different kinds of jokes. You have more than likely seen some reactionary humor on Twitter. Unlike liberals, who frequently use humor to engage their audience and build a bigger tent, conservative humor plays a different rhetorical role. “Right-wing humor is mean. It’s vicious,” says Hariman. “It’s the same lesson we all learn in middle school: humor can be used as an instrument of domination. That's how the right often uses it.”
Take Bill O’Reilly’s opening statement from the Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium he held last year with Jon Stewart. Now, I may just be a sucker for prop gags, but there is natural humor in seeing O’Reilly pull out high-quality signs to explain such complicated concepts as “Debt is Bad” or “Bush is Gone”. It may be condescending, but it is also just a well-constructed prop gag.
Even though O’Reilly was funny, though, not many in the audience laughed. And that was especially true when he got to his third sign, one mocking Sandra Fluke. It is hard to laugh at a joke which is essentially an attempt by a wealthy and influential media personality to silence and shame someone for speaking her mind. It reminds the listener of Limbaugh calling Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” – name-calling which, if Limbaugh’s distributor is to be believed, was so offensive that it led to $5.5 million in advertising losses.
This is the danger of conservatives being funny; humor that defends a status quo can easily veer over into bullying and viciousness. Sarah Palin's speech at CPAC had some of the better-constructed jokes of any political speech of the last year. Her one-liners were snappy and her delivery was effective. But when those jokes seem to encourage the birther conspiracy or play off of dog-whistle racism, it is difficult to call them "funny".
This is not to say that conservatives should be avoiding humor (though if they cannot be funny without being offensive, perhaps that would be for the best). They do, however, need to pick their targets better. Hariman notes that the right wing has failed to exploit its greatest opportunity for humor: liberal hypocrisy. It is a vein of humor Jon Stewart has mined to great effect. Juxtaposing politicians’ past statements with their current (often very different) attitudes can expose unconscionable political cowardice and be very, very funny. And yes, the liberal-leaning audience of The Daily Show still eats it up when it is aimed at Democratic politicians. If Republicans want to employ humor – and they should – they should be calling out Democratic hypocrisy. The last time a Republican made a concerted effort to draw attention to the difference between the White House’s rhetoric and its actions, he won praise from some of the most liberal publications in the nation.
Politics can, and should, be humorous. When Obama drops one-liners at the Correspondents’ Association Dinner, it not only makes his audience laugh but allows him to directly address some issues he cannot normally talk about. When Stewart, Colbert and The Onion employ it, it reminds their viewers to keep an eye out for political hypocrisy and doublespeak. If Republicans could employ humor better and not be so “middle school," it would not only elevate the national debate but keep Democrats more honest. Republicans, not just for their sake but for America’s, should be funnier.