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Davis, California

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Column: Performance art politics

Stephen Colbert is giving politics a run for its money. When he went against the wishes of his parent company Viacom and set up a super PAC last June, many in the media took this to mean Colbert was parodying the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. A year later, it’s less than certain, but no less funny, what Mr. Colbert is up to.

The Supreme Court decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, allows corporate entities to funnel unlimited amounts of money into political action committees so long as these super PACs don’t coordinate with political candidates. If you’ve heard that corporations are people, this is the case that made that so. Corporations, not unlike you and I, are granted protection for their donations as political speech under the First Amendment. You read that correctly: money talks.

Colbert’s super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” has so far elicited $1,023,121.24 in donations (more than Sarah Palin’s super PAC), ran attack ads naming Mitt Romney a serial killer (because his former consulting firm killed corporations, which are people) and propelled non-candidate Herman Cain to fifth place in the South Carolina Republican Primary, ahead of Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann. Colbert would have put himself on the ticket, but he failed to meet the registration deadline.

Where this all gets tricky is in identifying his goal. While Colbert’s motive seems clear through the parody of federal elections laws broadly and corporate personhood specifically, much less clear is what he wants to do with that parody. Russell Peterson, author of Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke, claims it’s unlikely this stunt will do anything to damage the reality of the Citizens United decision. Whether or not you disapprove of it, super PACs will continue to mobilize dollars and political mercenaries. It seems as though nothing less than a constitutional amendment could challenge corporate personhood. While Colbert has garnered a considerable amount of attention, even his pulpit is too small to reach the high bar for passing an amendment.

Does this mean that parody is both the motive and the goal? That doesn’t seem to be the case either. There’s something that separates Colbert’s super PAC from the parody you see on late night television, satirical news and from comedians like Jon Stewart. When parody is the goal of humor, the resulting sentiment is a kind of disengagement with politics. Comedians discharge our frustration with politics-as-usual by their pessimistic, “politicians will be politicians” punch lines. Colbert is different.

As the running gag turned into a marathon over the course of a year, Colbert’s campaign has a participatory impact. Where much of the aforementioned humor is performed to an audience, Colbert performs with the audience. By donating to the Colbert super PAC, you literally buy in to the humor. It’s safe to say that those who are donating understand what they’re doing when they fund a super PAC that orchestrates absurdist political attacks and campaigns on their behalf. To take that further, the folks who donate are more likely to see their ads stack up against those of other super PACs, their phony candidates against the “serious” contenders. By buying into the humor, the audience is drawn further into the political drama.

Read this way, Colbert is achieving via parody a new kind of civic engagement. People may tune in for the hilarity, but they stay (and hopefully, vote) as the stakes grow. While Colbert is modest in naming the PAC “Americans For a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” it seems bent on making a real impact today.

You can tell RAJIV NARAYAN whether his idea for a SuperAggiePAC is genius or super dumb at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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