Opinion: The Onion is right about the future of democracy

Editor’s note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for Presidential Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” Hosts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


“Can Americans go to jail for mocking the government?”

The satirical newspaper The Onion released a tongue-in-cheek amicus brief this week, arguing that the Supreme Court should hear a case about parody, free speech and police harassment. In its brief, which opened its argument summary with the above question, the publication sided with Anthony Novak, the Ohio man jailed and prosecuted by local police over a Facebook page parodying his department.

Novak has sued the department for violating his civil rights, but the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that police officers are protected by qualified immunity. Novak has now appealed to the Supreme Court.

Defending Novak, The Onion offered a strong defense of parody as a critically important form of political speech: “Parodists can demystify an authoritarian’s personality, highlight the rhetorical tricks politicians use to deceive their constituents, and even diminish the governing institutions of a government. real world propaganda attempts.’ Protecting the police who jail parodists or requiring parodies to “pre-emptively balloon” slap the “parody” label on their work – would neutralize parody as a political tool, the brief says.

Such a move would be particularly damaging to contemporary US political discourse. As The Onion notes, parody has been a form of political commentary for millennia.

But parody has also gained particular importance in the US over the past 30 years, as political entertainment has become the primary means by which Americans understand and discuss politics. Because of this, Americans expect politics to come packed with parody, punchlines and primetime pizazz, which has opened the door for satirists and comedians to become valuable political activists. To threaten to stifle parody, as The Onion’s 23-page brief points out, is to fundamentally compromise Americans’ ability to engage in political discourse.

The summary’s argument merits an understanding of humor’s dominant position on the intermingling of politics and entertainment that has increasingly defined political life in recent decades. That mix–especially the move to more sleazy, sly comedy bits–became more prominent in the 1968 election, when Richard Nixon, then former vice president and Republican presidential candidate, appeared on the variety show “Laugh-In.” In the 1970s, comedian Chevy Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford on “Saturday Night Live.” But it was in the late 1980s and 1990s that Americans became accustomed to entertainment – ​​especially comedy – as a primary political expression.

Chevy Chase (as Gerald Ford) at the table with Ron Nessen, Ford's real-life press secretary, on 'Saturday Night Live' in 1976.

In 1992, presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Ross Perot relied on cable programming and late-night television to project their authenticity; Clinton answered questions from an audience of hundreds of young people on MTV, while Perot announced his intention to run for president on “Larry King Live.” While these and other developments were among the most visible signs that politics and entertainment were in a new relationship, a more permanent transformation was taking place with new programming developments in radio and television (and to a lesser extent, print and Internet sources).

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh entered national syndication in 1988 — the same year The Onion debuted as a print parody paper — mixing comedy bits with political news in a way that was considered revolutionary for national radio. Millions of listeners flocked to his radio show, followed by his best-selling books and late-night television shows, addicted to his witty, parodic, right-wing approach to politics.

Rush Limbaugh in his studio on his radio show, January 12, 1995.

But it was in television that the real transformation was underway. Comedy Central, the initial cable network developed by Time-Life, debuted in 1991. It featured reruns of comedy films, stand-up specials and a little original programming. But in 1993, the network found its voice with “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.”

Modeled after the popular PBS show “The McLaughlin Group,” the show parodied the political roundtables that became staples of news programming. There was a monologue from Maher, followed by a panel that mixed actors, comedians, activists and politicians, all vying for the biggest laugh line.

Despite the channel’s small viewership, “Politically Incorrect” was a hit, mixing outrage, politics and comedy in a way few Americans had experienced before. The show was so popular that it was soon bought by ABC, where it was canceled in 2002 after the “Nightline” newscast.

After ABC dropped “Politically Incorrect,” Comedy Central sought to revive the provocative parody-politics combination. It arrived on “The Daily Show,” and Jon Stewart hit his stride as host, making it one of the most important political shows on television in the 2000s.

In particular, liberals frustrated with the George W. Bush administration, but also dissatisfied with the programming offerings of cable news, relied on Stewart not only for entertainment but also for information. According to a 2004 Pew poll, 21 percent of young adults received campaign news from programs such as “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live”: “For Americans under 30, these comedy shows are now almost as frequently mentioned in newspapers and on the evening online news channels as a regular source of election news’.

Former US President Bill Clinton spoke with host Jon Stewart on Comedy Centrals show

The same pattern was repeated with “The Colbert Report,” which debuted in 2005 with former “The Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert as host. Stewart and Colbert identified as comedians, but their positions as hosts of political comedy shows eventually turned them into activists. Stewart became a passionate advocate for 9/11 first responders and veterans, repeatedly testifying before Congress on their behalf. Colbert used his popular show to shed light on the dangers of Super PACs, providing extensive education on a complex issue and eventually testifying before Congress.

Programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” not only became hubs for entertainment, but also hubs for education and activism (which is why they have so many imitators in conservative circles and the podcast space). In the process, they became a place where politics became palatable, while calling attention to important issues and sometimes even becoming political agents themselves.

TV personality Stephen Colbert in a taping for Comedy Central

In the following years, the parodic approach to politics became a major focus of entertainment and commentary in the US. Clips from John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” (which airs on HBO, which shares a parent company with CNN) trended weekly on Twitter, while Trevor Noah took over Stewart’s role on “The Daily Show” and “Daily Show.” in Samantha Bee launched her own show (which aired on TBS, which also shares a parent company with CNN). It’s worth noting that while Noah just announced his imminent departure and Bee’s show was recently canceled , while the late night is definitely in transition, it’s likely he’ll be unplugging from politics anytime soon.

As political podcasts proliferated, comedy and parody shows like Jon Lovett’s “Lovett or Leave It” and the conservative podcast “Ruthless” gained traction. The Onion, meanwhile, has become a touchstone for the tragedy, covering all mass shootings with a new article: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” (The Onion has also emphasized the difficulty of parody in an era when politics has gone by the wayside, a point he nailed beautifully in his amicus brief with the line: “Any more than that, and the front page of The Onion would be indistinguishable from The New York Times).

In times of absurd and dangerous politics, when members of Congress ponder Jewish lasers that start forest fires and a pillow salesman becomes the chief architect of election conspiracies, parody plays an even more important role in piercing authority and keeping people. engaged — which is why The Onion’s amicus brief, while often tongue-in-cheek and unserious, is an essential appeal to the Supreme Court.