Cynicism, irony and politics
JC Sullivan | Friday, October 31, 2014
Poll after poll indicates that millennials are more cynical regarding the present and future state of American politics than the rest of the voting population. Our generation has shown a historically low level of trust in our governmental institutions and those responsible for carrying out their functions.
So, what has brought about this attitude of negativity? Like most problems facing American politics, its causal factors are numerous, ambiguous and complex. However, I would argue that one of the causes responsible for millennial cynicism involves political coverage on television, a primary lens through which millennials view our political environment.
Jon Stewart and his offspring enjoy a strong relationship with millennial television viewers. Stewart has established a successful career by employing irony to tear down the absurdity of American politics and media, which has provided ample content for him over the last 15 years. While a comedy program at heart, “The Daily Show” is seen by many millennials as a primary source of political news. Ratings prove that “The Daily Show” is the most-viewed evening news program among the 18-34-year-old male demographic.
Research has shown that these viewers have a more cynical attitude towards the American political system. While these findings are not without contention, it seems logical that consuming politics and news through the lenses of irony and ridicule inherently leads to a more negative understanding and opinion of politics and news.
Irony and satire have the ability to provide a great service to millennials. Irony reveals the absurd of American politics and can expose the ugly underlying of our news media. However, irony’s role in our political discourse extends only over its ability to identify and expose the ridiculous. While Stewart serves an important purpose in political news coverage, there can be dangerous consequences when ironic comedy-based news coverage serves as one’s primary source of news coverage.
Now, to be clear, I enjoy “The Daily Show” and echo Stewart’s frequent cry that he is a comedian, or as he says, the kid who sits in the back of class and throws spitballs, and bears no responsibility for being a news source. Further, I find the argument that there is legitimate cause for cynicism in American politics and news media convincing as well. Stewart might be the poster child for cynicism and irony, but I do not think he should bear any form of blame.
Further, I don’t think us millennials can be blamed for turning to Jon Stewart for our news coverage. News media is a business driven by page views and advertising dollars, and often, the truth doesn’t sell very well. This problem is only exacerbated by the internet and social media. Sensationalism and partisan bickering have proven to be an effective business model, and this leaves us with limited options we can trust. While Stewart might be a comedian first and newscaster second, most find him to be at least the most honest and self-aware news source in town. In fact, a Time magazine survey found Jon Stewart to be the most trusted man in America after the passing of Walter Cronkite.
However, if exposure and ridicule of political problems, a job “The Daily Show” and others do well, are not translated into action against such problems, irony becomes a means by which one begrudgingly accepts his or her circumstances. In other words, if our relationship with American politics ends with Jon Stewart’s daily segments, we tacitly consent to the spectacle we mock. As David Foster Wallace eloquently articulated, “irony is the song of the prisoner who has come to love his cage.”
Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of this disposition is that it has the ability to discourage discourse. It allows answers like “Washington’s just a disaster” to go without question or qualification. It also positions the responder so that any disagreement appears either naïve or dogmatic. Some form of this occurs whenever one of Jon Stewart’s interviewees treats their exchange as something more than a joke. This attitude compels our generation to resign to our cynicism and withdraw from the battle to improve our condition.
So, despite this ironically cynical outlook, I implore you to resist the tempting inclination of cynicism. Ditch Will McAvoy’s “The Newsroom” diatribe or Mr. Smith’s filibuster scene next time you’re perusing YouTube. Not because McAvoy or Smith don’t have anything important to say, but because our present condition calls for something greater than despair and distant ironic disapproval. Our present condition requires action backed by a mindset that we are not imprisoned to the political climate we perceive. Fixing our political problems requires a generation that is more inclined to roll up their sleeves and take to the business of compelling change, as opposed to one that sits in the corner and makes disapproving jokes.
JC Sullivan is a junior living in Keenan Hall. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.