Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
On a beautiful autumn day at the end of October, an estimated 210,000 people gathered in the National Mall to watch television for four hours. At least, that’s what it felt like from my position behind the sound stage in front of one of two giant flat screen TVs that flanked the main stage at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. As the crowd filtered into sections of lawn separated by short metal fences, the jumbotrons played clips from episodes of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report in the run up to the rally. As the morning wore on, the crowd grew until it stretched all the way back to the Washington Monument and spilled into the parkway on the edges of the Mall.
It felt like the buildup to a momentous occasion, and for many people there (some of my friends included), it felt like we were witnessing an important event, a statement, or the birth of a new political movement. Signs and costumes mocking the Tea Party and Christine O’Donnell, former US Senate candidate from Delaware, were everywhere. Then MythBusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman came on stage and instructed the crowd to jump up and down and perform “the wave.” Actor Sam Waterston read a satirical poem penned by Stephen Colbert’s neoconservative pundit alter-ego. With the Capitol Building visible in the distance beneath a large red, white, and blue banner erected over the stage, Sheryl Crow, Ozzy Osbourne, The Roots, and The O’Jays performed musical numbers. A giant puppet in the likeness of Stephen Colbert even made an appearance.
What was going on? Had we all become the butt of an elaborate practical joke? Finally, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who had become famous for skewering the Bush administration four nights a week for eight years, for supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy, and then for holding President Obama’s feet to the fire, got to the point. The news media, they eloquently argued, had been fear mongering long enough. Pundits from both sides of the political aisle had turned their opponents into monsters, and it was time to lay the fear aside and embrace each other as one nation.
Then everyone piled their signs and placards around the over-filled trash cans and slowly filtered back to their hotels.
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was the 14th mass gathering on the National Mall since January 2009—as many protests and political marches as were held there between the years 1900 and 1969. Although the organizers took great care to appear politically neutral, two former Clinton aides, Craig Minassian and Chris Wayne, were consults to the event, and Arianna Huffington bussed thousands of supporters there. Reporters were so hard pressed to find any conservatives to interview that they hounded a friend of mine who carried a satirical “Palin/Palin 2012” sign.
Yet one of the only immediate effects of the rally was to cause a wounded Keith Olbermann to suspend his “Worst Person in the World” segment, which Jon Stewart had used to illustrate the political climate of fear. After 18 days, the segment returned with a new name, “Not Really Worst Persons in the World.” Supporters of the rally on Reddit.com also raised over $200,000 for charity.
Whether the attendees believed the rally was satirical, political, or a thumb-in-the-eye to Glenn Beck, it was clear that filling the National Mall with as many people as possible was one of its goals. “The sheer size of people assembled in one place… the 2 million people watching from home, 500,000 watching online, and all of the satellite rallies, all add up to our being at the epicenter of a global and national, unified movement,” Chris Biddle, visiting from Chicago, told me after the rally. “I think by sheer existence and size alone, it did accomplish something. It was a message, sent loud and clear to the rest of the world. There are a lot more progressives in the US than you might think that they are.”
Kevin Guillaume, also from Chicago, thought of the rally as a “political sojourn to our country’s political Mecca.” He added, “I thought going in that there would be a strong message about the direction of our country. I thought it had the potential to stand side by side Dr. King’s rallies. I thought it was going to be like the end of the movie ‘Pump up the Volume’.”
After two years of rallies and counter rallies in the National Mall by left, right, and middle, however, what had been accomplished? Two years worth of organizing and activism had been topped by an anti-rally—a political spoof with a non-political message. Days after the event, right-leaning libertarian and conservative candidates swept the midterm elections, dashing any hopes that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear would be some kind of boost for liberal Democrats. Like at the end of every mass protest in Washington, DC, the demonstrators simply tossed away their signs and went home.
Mass rallies in Washington, DC have become a function of a democratic temperament in which participants believe that whoever can gather the largest number of people in one place is “the winner.” There is no evidence, however, that these rallies and protests have any effect on the temperament or the electoral tendencies of the general public. For instance, despite the 500,000-800,000 people who attended the March for Women’s Lives (a pro-choice rally) in April 2004, a Gallup poll taken in 2009 showed that for the first time since 1995, more Americans told the polling group that they are pro-life than pro-choice. In the same period, the number of people who responded that abortion should be legal under all circumstances declined from 33 percent to 21 percent.
If we are really interested in restoring sanity, we should eschew any mass rallies, marches, sign waving, and sloganeering that have the sole purpose of demonstrating strength of numbers for a cause, political or otherwise. Not only are such activities ineffective, they tend to drone out dissenting voices and (sorry, Jon) reasonable discourse. For the sake of sanity, let us hope Don Delillo was wrong when he said, “The future belongs to crowds.” Let the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear fulfill its purpose by being the last of its kind.