After the rise of comparatively extreme US groups like the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert held a rally in Washington, DC called the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”
Its stated purpose was to overcome a politics of screaming at each other, and to hail respectful disagreement. Over 200,000 people attended the rally, which lasted for the full day of Oct 30, 2010 and boasted dozens of celebrities. There were mini-rallies in over 1,100 satellite cities across the globe.
Today, the website points to the Comedy Central homepage. (Try it for yourself: http://www.rallytorestoresanity.com.)
The branded merchandise is no longer available for purchase. The Facebook event page, with over 300,000 respondents, now sits idle. The fourth-last post on the page, from February 2014, sums it up nicely.
What happened? We know that Americans see US politics as dysfunctional and over-polarized. Even those 200,000+ attendees, if they were the only ones that really cared, could have been turned to some noticeable action, but it never happened.
There are a few lessons to be learned here.
First, Stewart and Colbert failed to engage moderates and conservatives. The Colbert Show and Daily Show are distrusted by moderates and conservatives as a reliable news source, but trusted by liberals. As the exclusive faces of the movement, they didn’t set themselves up to engage groups that actually disagreed.
It may have even reinforced the pervasive mindset in American politics, in which “politics would be more sane if only the people that disagreed with me weren’t such extremists.”
Left-leaning papers lauded it, but not for its efforts to bring people together to talk, but for its “conservative-destroying” qualities.
Second, there was no follow-up. The website and Facebook page could have turned into some sort of hub for solutions, discussion, or at least some continued sense of identity in which people could try to be beacons of political sanity. After the rally dispersed and everyone went home. Even if they were energized to take next steps, there were no next steps for them to take. Such a rally needs to be the inspiration to walk down a long and hard road if it is to make any progress.
Third, a rally is not a plan or a solution. Rallies are organized to get someone else to “do something” by applying vocal and noticeable public pressure. Stewart and Colbert did indeed entreat the American people to put aside their political hats and work together, but spending a few hours telling people to do such a thing is going to make no progress. To change American politics, a leader must have a coherent plan that people can follow towards victory. In particular, in the case of political polarization, Americans hungry for change require tools to be able to have different kinds of conversations and think about politics in a different way. Simply stating the problem and “calling for” a solution is nothing new and added no value to fixing the problem.
The tragedy is that both Stewart and Colbert had enough influence and resources that, with the right plan, they might have driven real progress, but since the Rally, polarization has only grown.