The Colbert Report‘s windup completes its namesake’s shift from the gadfly who tore into George W. Bush at an official White House event to the court jester who gave softball publicity to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is thus the perfect symbol of the evolution of American liberalism from the tail ends of the administrations it spanned.
Stephen Colbert’s considerable command of humor, aided by innovations ideally suited to the rise of viral video and the collapse of barriers between high and low culture his show paralleled, made him his era’s face of liberalism. The sarcasm of his media persona was as fitting a popular symbol of the liberal doctrine in the 21st century as the egghead public-intellectual technocrat exemplified by John Kenneth Galbraith was in the twentieth. Whereas Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s famous statement encapsulating liberal historiography, “liberalism in America has ordinarily been the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community,” was buried hundreds of pages into a tome on Andrew Jackson, such historical assumptions of an era of failed laissez-faire had become such everybody-knows commonplaces that Colbert could conjure them up with a well-chosen image in seconds.
Unwilling to probe the package deals of red and blue politics, Colbert never treated free markets as anything but part of the Republican agenda; lurking behind the invisible hand was invariably the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Government would be tweaked, but its essence was always identified with its most benign functions like regulating local traffic. Radical left-baiting conservatives pointed admiringly to his ridicule of “extremists.” When they were not seen as embodying laissez-faire, Colbert gave public space without being dismissive to decentralist and genuinely anti-system views of the likes of Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader, and Douglas Rushkoff.
Even while his anti-intellectual, faux populist right-wing persona was an accurate burlesque, Colbert always veered into justifying those intellectuals whose abuse of power was a longtime target of Noam Chomsky and laughing at ordinary people. Chris Hedges noted that Colbert’s approach “ridiculed followers of the tea party without acknowledging that the pain and suffering expressed by many who support the movement are not only real but legitimate. It made fun of the buffoons who are rising up out of moral swamps to take over the Republican Party without accepting that their supporters were sold out by a liberal class, and especially a Democratic Party, which turned its back on the working class for corporate money.”
Colbert stuck to mocking Bush-style Republicans long after their Democratic successors in executive office continued their policies. With a similar presidential turnover on the horizon, it is time for satire to return to being “anti-reactionary without being progressive” (in the non-complementary words of critic Kenneth Tynan), to the anarchic spirit of Mad magazine which was as gleefully eager to mock liberals as anyone else. Only then will the entire spectrum of establishment political mythology be revealed to be as laughable as Colbert’s puffed-up fiction.