The divided America that Jon Stewart leaves behind

He came in championing a sensible, non-partisan way for America. He paved the way for the exact opposite.

(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

(Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

In 2004, Jon Stewart went from a somewhat popular comedian to a media oracle, but he didn’t do it on his own show. The host of The Daily Show was appearing on CNN’s Crossfire, a long-running series that featured liberals arguing with conservatives, where he attacked the hosts, and their format, for “hurting America. You’re partisan—what do you call it— hacks.” But when Stewart leaves The Daily Show after Aug. 6, he’ll be leaving a media world where comedians and pundits alike speak mostly to the people who agree with them. “We always have to remember that people can be opponents, but not enemies,” Stewart said on NPR in 2010. But today, no one—including Stewart—seems to remember that much. And it might not even be true.

Unlike an openly partisan comedian like Al Franken, Jon Stewart has always portrayed himself as above the political fray. “There is not a designed, ideological agenda on my part to affect partisan change,” Stewart told Fox News host Chris Wallace in 2011. “That’s the soup you swim in.” His theme on The Daily Show was that he was a common-sense guy standing up for sanity against the exaggerations of the news media—particularly Fox News, with its hysterical fear-mongering, but also Crossfire, which he called “theatre, not debate.”

Any time Stewart appeared away from The Daily Show, without his comedian’s mask, he would argue that the U.S. was basically a united country being artificially divided by the media. In 2010, he gave his fullest account of this belief at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which started as a parody of similar rallies by Glenn Beck, but ended with Stewart giving a totally sincere speech against the menace of partisanship. He argued that “most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives,” and that the cable news media was partly to blame for making Americans fear and distrust each other: “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder.” That same year, he said on MSNBC that “the fight in the country is corruption versus not corruption,” not left vs. right.

But it seems clear that if Stewart was trying to get beyond a simplistic left-right division, he’s failed. When he announced his retirement from The Daily Show, he was covered mostly as a partisan figure, a figure of sanity that liberals and Democrats could turn to in a crisis. The Hill, a publication covering the U.S. Congress, did a piece on lawmakers reacting to Stewart’s departure; all the praise came from Democrats, with a lone Republican representative saying he “never watched him in my life.”

The Daily Show still has occasional segments that stand up for Stewart’s old idea of a non-partisan, common-sensical America—including a scene where a correspondent goes to Alabama and discovers he can’t find any ordinary people who are intolerant of homosexuality. But a lot of the material on the show has shown a greater willingness to despair about Americans themselves, not just their leaders. Segments about the everyday sexism in America have become more common, and Stewart followed the massacre at a black church in South Carolina by blaming the culture of racism in the U.S.: “We are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.”

Related: Jon Stewart’s legacy as he leaves the Daily Show

It may be that Stewart and his writers have become more aware of these issues. But it also helps that these are the issues that appeal to the show’s narrow audience. The Hollywood Reporter noted that while Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show has taken a chunk out of Stewart’s viewership, Stewart “remains on top among adults 18-24 and all of the younger male groups.” And like all comics, Stewart knows he can get a response by telling his audience what it wants to hear. “Seth Meyers coined the term ‘clapter,’ which is when you do a political joke and people go ‘woo-hoo,’ ” Tina Fey told Reader’s Digest in 2008 (before Meyers had become a late-night host himself). “You hear a lot of that on The Daily Show.” A mostly young, male, Millennial audience will always cheer at being told that they’re better than America as a whole.

But at least Stewart still makes token efforts to make his audience uncomfortable: In an article called “Why conservatives should miss Jon Stewart,” the Washington Post’s Stephen Stromberg pointed out that Stewart was willing to have “substantive, calm and respectful” interviews with conservative pundits. Some of Stewart’s successors in comedy don’t even pretend to care about anything except “clapter.” John Oliver, the popular Daily Show correspondent who replaced Stewart as host during the summer of 2013, now has his own show on HBO, Last Week Tonight; it’s basically The Daily Show as an outraged partisan lecture. Oliver’s technique is to take an issue on which his audience agrees with him—the death penalty, surveillance, the awfulness of Olive Garden—and explain why they’re right to agree with him.

But then, there might not be much advantage today in trying to get beyond partisanship. Despite Stewart’s exhortations, the regular news media has become even more partisan. There are more liberal hosts than there used to be, like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who admires Stewart so much that she said he “does the news better than us.” But in a 2010 appearance on her show, he was already distressed over liberal commentators placing people “on this axis of left and right.” Shows like Crossfire, which Stewart so loathed, were based on the idea that both liberals and conservatives, young people and old, might be watching the same show. Today, people increasingly self-segregate in their media: Two years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told New York magazine that he stopped reading newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times because of “the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning?” Meanwhile, several studies have shown that The Daily Show is a major source of news for young and liberal people. Far from the united people of Stewart’s imagination, it turns out Americans literally want different facts.

(ASTRID RIECKEN/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

(ASTRID RIECKEN/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

It could also be that Stewart’s idea of cross-partisanship is a relic of his own age, a holdover from earlier eras. When he began hosting the show in 1998, Bill Clinton was in office, achieving wide popularity as a bipartisan centrist. One of Stewart’s favourite guests was Sen. John McCain, whom the host held up as a truth-teller who could expose the flaws of both parties. And as late as 2004, a young politician named Barack Obama could say with a straight face that “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.” Stewart, wrote Jonathan Ladd at the political science blog Mischiefs of Faction, stands for “the view that partisanship and related corruption are our country’s most important problems.”

But that was an idea that was much easier to believe in the late 1990s, when there were some liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and it seemed as if the world’s problems could have non-ideological solutions. Today, with Republican voters pulling their party to the right on issues like immigration and health care, and Hillary Clinton running left on cultural issues, it’s hard to argue that Americans don’t really disagree. Ryan Cooper of The Week criticized this idea as having “a whiff of anti-democratic sentiment,” and accused Stewart and Obama of “glossing over the fact that there are fundamental, unavoidable disagreements about what is good for the country.” Stewart may have been wrong all along: the politicians and the media may actually be less partisan than the people who empower them.

Related: Our Q&A with Jon Stewart on his movie Rosewater

That’s why Stewart may have had a better influence in the Middle East than in his own country. National Journal’s Brian Resnick wrote earlier this year about how hosts in countries like Iran and Egypt have copied Stewart’s format. “It’s all you, Jon. We’re getting everything from you,” Iranian host Kambiz Hosseini told him on a Daily Show appearance. Comedian Bassem Youssef was called “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” for his Daily Show-style satire, Al Bernameg. The show was shut down by the government, something Stewart never had to worry about, but when Stewart announced his retirement, Youssef tweeted: “The legendary Jon Stewart is not leaving a show, he is leaving a legacy behind him. An inspiration and an icon for millions.”

In countries where freedoms like speech and religion are genuinely under attack, it’s possible to have a show that cuts across partisan boundaries and appeals to common sense. In America, where the stakes are lower, partisan rancour is somehow higher: Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, was the focus of days of angry media coverage for some racist and sexist jokes he made on Twitter a few years ago. Maybe it’s not Crossfire or Jon Stewart or politicians who are “hurting America.” Maybe Americans just genuinely disagree on everything.

Listen to Jaime J. Weinman discuss Jon Stewart’s legacy on The Thrill, Maclean’s pop-culture podcast. Subscribe for free now on iTunes! Subscribe on Stitcher! Android users can find us on Beyondpod! 

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