Stephen Colbert is fundamentally an entertainer, not a politician, but according to Penn State professor Sophia McClennen, he has a major political accomplishment to his credit: as host of The Colbert Report, he has “use[d] satire to reclaim America for progressives.”
In a Friday article for Salon, McClennen argued that Colbert’s character affirmed “American values for those who think critically…For the first time in decades we had a comedian critiquing the right and suggesting that such critique was the highest form of patriotism. Finally we had someone remind us that you could care about your nation and simultaneously find American exceptionalism disturbing.”
McClennen noted that when Colbert takes over CBS’s The Late Show from David Letterman, he “will no longer be performing in character as a parody of a right-wing bloviating pundit.” She went on to discuss the implications of that change (emphasis added):
While that shift might signal a welcome opportunity for greater creative license for Colbert, it’s worth remembering the unique features of Colbert’s character we will soon be losing — features that include Colbert’s special brand of patriotism.
…When Colbert first launched his new show as a spinoff from The Daily Show our nation was awash in the culture of fear that followed the attacks of 9/11...[A]nyone who criticized the Bush administration was immediately accused of treason. Those who thought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ill-conceived and immoral, who staunchly opposed torture, and who believed our nation depended on an active, inquisitive and critical citizenry were silenced…
…[T]he right has controlled the idea of patriotism for so long that it is easy to forget that there is no logical reason to think that Rachel Maddow loves her country any less than Glenn Beck. Since when did asking questions become unpatriotic? When did bursting into tears mean you care? Wasn’t our nation founded by rebels sick of an oligarchy? Somehow, though, we live in an era when folks like Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity have cornered the market on patriotism.
Geoffrey Nunberg reminds us that the right has specifically attacked the patriotism of the left for decades. And, he notes, the attacks have largely worked. Ask yourself if the phrase “liberal values” seems weird when compared to “conservative values.” It does, doesn’t it? Nunberg explains that that weirdness is not because the left has no values; it is because the right specifically fought to control the idea of America. Somehow along the way questioning the right became equivalent to questioning your nation.
…Colbert developed a character who was ready to reclaim American values for those who think critically…
…For the first time in decades we had a comedian critiquing the right and suggesting that such critique was the highest form of patriotism. Finally we had someone remind us that you could care about your nation and simultaneously find American exceptionalism disturbing. Colbert showed us that we are the ones that define our national identity and that it was time to get into the game…
While we can console ourselves with the satirical brilliance of John Oliver on his HBO show, with Jon Stewart’s continuing tenure as host of The Daily Show, and with Larry Wilmore’s upcoming The Nightly Show, the fact remains that none of them will ever use satire to reclaim America for progressives like Colbert’s character did.