Stephen Colbert’s Presidential Bid: Insightful Political Criticism in the Guise of Comedy

COMMENTARY | Stephen Colbert is a political comedian whose schtick is to mimic conservative political commentators on Fox news such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and their former colleague Glenn Beck. Pointing out that Colbert is affecting a comedic persona may seem overly obvious to some but, as many critics have pointed out, the dividing line between entertainment and news has become blurred in the contemporary cultural climate as news networks compete for an audience. I always regarded Rush Limbaugh as a right wing comedian whose celebrity status somehow earned him credentials as a serious political commentator. Al Franken, from the other end of the political spectrum, used his comedian celebrity status as a point of departure for his political career to become a U.S. Senator.

One of the reasons why Colbert is so successful, and funny for that matter, is that he intentionally embraces the fuzzy space between entertainment and politics. Colbert has been making news with the mock presidential bid in the Republican primary in South Carolina. A recent poll by the Public Policy Polling Survey found that Colbert – a mock candidate – was polling ahead of Jon Huntsman – a real candidate – among voters in South Carolina. Huntsman withdrew his bid for the nomination and pledged his support for Mitt Romney.

Colbert formed a Super PAC in March to support his mock presidential bid. Colbert’s Super PAC is now under the control of his colleague Jon Stewart. The role of Super PACs in the electoral process is a hotly debated issue. Super PACs were made possible by a 2010 Supreme Court Decision referred to as “Citizens United” that removed the limits that corporations and unions can spend on political purposes. The decision essentially classified money as speech. Super PACs are able to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or attack candidates at the federal, state, or local level. The Super PACs are able to run relatively brutal ads while allowing the actual candidates they support from dirtying their hands. Super PACs played a significant role in Mitt Romney’s success in the Iowa caucuses. According to CBS News PACs have spent over $7 million in political ads in South Carolina. This is double the amount that the candidates have spent. Colbert’s Super PAC “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” has mocked the role of Super PACs with two incredibly funny political adds in South Carolina. The first ad took aim at Mitt Romney “If Mitt Romney really believes ‘Corporations are people, my friend,’ then Mitt Romney is a serial killer.” The most recent ad asks voters to support Herman Cain while flashing a picture of Colbert. A sex scandal forced Cain to withdraw from the race a few months ago. “A vote for Herman Cain is a vote for America. He’s such a Washington outsider, he’s not even running for president. Send them a message, on January 21st vote for Herman Cain.”

On the one hand, Colbert’s presidential campaign and his Super PAC can be simply enjoyed for their comedic effect. On the other hand, the political process always benefits from astute criticism. Colbert’s Super PAC ads can be viewed at a deeper level as a serious form of political critique. Colbert’s approach is a powerful because it takes the form of what the German philosopher Hegel referred to as “immanent critique.” That is to say, it points out the contradictions and inconsistencies from within the object it is criticizing rather than from an outside spectator’s point of view.

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