Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Rally for the Rest of Us

Pew Research Center released the results of a survey this summer that asked registered voters to assess their views of the ideologies of the major political parties.  In the survey, they asked American voters to describe their own political views by placing themselves in the most appropriate of five categories: very conservative; conservative; moderate; liberal; or very liberal.

If you follow the national news, it would be reasonable to conclude that the most popular American label has bounced around the last couple of years -- from the 2008 elections that swept President Obama into office with huge Democrat majorities in the Congress to the upcoming 2010 elections that seem destined to be a landslide for the Republicans at every level of government.

Reasonable, but wrong.

Once again this year, more American voters describe themselves as "moderate" (36%) than any other label, a finding that was especially true among Independents, nearly half of whom (48%) self-described as moderate.

This data seems to have been reinforced by the release last week of results from a separate Pew survey that found Americans' desires for a third political party (58%) are as high as they have been since 2003, with the majority of voters believing that a third party is needed because the Republicans and Democrats are doing a poor job of representing the American people.  The survey found that this groundswell is not connected to the emergence of the Tea Party, in spite of the formidable power the Tea Party has shown in influencing outcomes of Republican Party primary elections this fall, because conservatives are actually least likely to support a third party.  The voters surveyed by Pew showed a similar desire for a third party across ideological groups -- with 61% of liberals, 60% of moderates and 54% of conservatives believing a major third party is needed.

Against this backdrop, last week comedian Jon Stewart made one of the funniest and insightful announcements of the year.  Stewart announced his plans for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" that is scheduled at the National Mall for October 30th.  If you have not yet seen the announcement delivered by Stewart, do yourself a favor and click here to watch it for yourself.

A good joke can provoke a hearty laugh and a keen insight can produce an epiphany, but when the two come together it is sometimes downright cathartic.

The premise of Stewart's rally goes something like this.

"We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles . . .

"Ours is a rally for the people who've been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) -- not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence... we couldn't. That's sort of the point." 

Stewart's proposed chant for the rally?  Something that will charge up the marchers and encapsulate their message?

"We're Here!  But we're only here until 6:00 because we had to get a sitter."

And if I forget to bring my own handmade sign, what will they have pre-printed for me to wave in front of the news cameras?

"I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler." And my favorite, "I am not afraid of the Tea Party, Socialists or Muslims . . . but I am a little scared of spiders."

The message is simple and couldn't be more timely.  The folks on each extreme of the political spectrum have seized the public discourse, relegating the rest of us to the back seats . . . even though we're the ones with the keys to the car!

As I've written about before, there are few controversial public policy issues that don't lend themselves to some sort of reasonable consensus path, if only the shrill voices on each side would be quiet long enough for the grown-ups to move the country forward.  Illegal immigration is a perfect example.  We turn on Fox News and see loud-mouth politicians screaming about the need to round up all of these lawbreakers who are in this country without the right paperwork and send them back to their home countries.  We turn on MSNBC and see the screamers on the other side yelling about racist law enforcement officers and how every immigrant who wants to come here should be welcomed with open borders.  But guess what two-thirds of Americans believe?  We don't want open borders, we want them secured by patrol officers who are armed and dangerous; but we also don't want our hard-working gardeners and agriculture field workers separated from their wives and kids, and shipped out of the country like they are criminals.  You see, Americans don't take their direction from Fox or MSNBC; we're a reasonable lot and we can work these things out if we can get the lunatics and the ideologues out of the way.

So in this context, Stewart's rally may be the only one in history that has already succeeded without even being held.  He has given voice to something that may well grow in discussion as Election Day approaches and the bomb throwing from candidates on each side accelerates.  Namely, that most of us love this country too much to see our national discourse dissolve into this dysfunctional nonsense where only the citizens whose politics live on the edges are controlling the debate.

Of course, the essence of the rally is such that the most appropriate outcome for it would be if it had to be cancelled at the last minute: "Dude, I am so bummed, but something came up with work at the last minute and then I totally forgot that my son has a soccer tournament tomorrow, plus I promised my daughter that I'd take her to that new Miley Cyrus movie.  Anyway, I'm all jammed up this weekend now, so I'm gonna have to bail on the rally.  Have a good time, tell Stewart I said hey."

Glenn Beck made a loud statement for a bunch of Americans, Al Sharpton made a smaller statement for some other Americans.  I won't be able to make it to Stewart's rally (seeing as how I'm on the other side of the country and not really interested in dropping the coin or taking the time to travel to D.C. for a weekend), but I do hope it is a smash success and sends a loud message on behalf of the rest of us.

It's OK if you don't like Jon Stewart and if you think his rally is a lame idea.  I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure that you're not Hitler.

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