Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Sanity or fear? We decide.

By Rosemary Joyce

Today is election day. Elections are about numbers: who wins the most votes?

So it seems like a good time to think about two sets of numbers: one the number of voters, registered and likely; the other, the number of people who mobilized this past Saturday in response to a call from two comedians who shed satiric light on politics and pundits on a daily basis.

All electoral polling points to a major shift in alignment of political power both nationally and in state capitols across the country, although not, perhaps, a Republican takeover of the US Senate.

One of the key factors, if these projections hold, will be voter turnout: while more registered voters express agreement with the Democratic party, polling of those likely to vote today shifts to favor Republicans. A higher proportion of registered Republican voters say they definitely plan to vote (83% in a Pew poll published Sept. 23), an increase from the 2006 election (the last midterm election, the point of comparison because having a President on a ballot changes the dynamics of an election). For Democrats, the percentage of registered voters saying they definitely plan to vote stayed pretty steady since 2006, dropping from 70% to 69%.

Because the actual numbers of voters registered in the two parties are different (with Republican registration lower) another key factor is how independent voters are feeling about this election. Again, the Pew Poll is instructive:

independent voters, who typically are not highly engaged by midterm elections, are now more likely than Democrats to say they are giving a lot of thought to this one. And they are about as likely as Democrats to say they definitely will vote; during the fall of 2006, far more Democrats than independents said they definitely would vote.

The relatively high level of independent engagement this year has come among those who plan to vote Republican. Fully 64% of independents who plan to vote for the Republican in their district are giving a lot of thought to the election, compared with just 40% of independents who plan to vote for a Democrat.

The largest proportion of registered voters are independent: again, the Pew Poll says they make up 37% of registered voters, inching past Democrats (at 34%) and far more than registered Republicans (29%).

That's one set of numbers.

The other numbers are the count of people who came to Washington DC on Saturday, or gathered in satellite locations around the country-- including San Francisco-- to Rally for Sanity and/or Fear. Estimates by news organizations put attendance at the national mall in Washington at over 200,000.

A number of commentators expected hosts Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert to use the event to call for voter participation, seeing the energy mobilized as a counter to the so-called "enthusiasm gap".  So it was a surprise to those expecting a political rally when the key speech by Stewart that was the culmination of the rally completely avoided mention of the upcoming election or any urging to vote.

Instead, Stewart reiterated an argument he has made consistently for years: that the rise of 24 hour cable news channels has damaged our democracy, changing the role of the press as guarantee of an informed citizenry into a new role, inciting people to take up polarized positions that create better television at the expense of civil debate. His basic message: American citizens cooperate every day, despite our differences, to get things done. Using as his metaphor traffic merging to pass through a tunnel, he stressed the interdependency we all have in everyday life on others. In one brief gesture to the Capitol building in the background, he asked why, when the people have no problem working together, this is not possible for elected representatives?

Some political commentators on the left have objected to a video montage shown at the rally, in which pundits from Fox News and from MSNBC were intercut making provocative remarks, often personalizing political differences. These critics argue that Stewart created a "false equivalency" between the kinds of provocations that are circulated by right wing pundits-- including the continued encouragement of such falsehoods as that President Obama was not born in the US, and is a secret Muslim-- and the kinds of excesses committed by commentators further to the left.

Keith Olbermann of MSNBC argued particularly against the view that his network is "equidistant from sanity" when compared to Fox News. At the same time, Olbermann has suspended the most personalized segment of his program, in which he routinely identified three candidates for "Worst Person in the World". While suspending the segment, Olbermann noted he was not certain that this was an effective gesture toward opponents he characterized as bullies, who, he noted, in his experience don't respond to such gestures by stopping their bad behavior.

Not taken into account in the defensive reaction from liberal commentators is that Steven Colbert, who maintained his parodic caricature of a right wing pundit throughout the rally, was assigned the role of explicit fear mongerer ultimately defeated in debate by Stewart. There was no corresponding parody of a left-wing commentator. Far from a false equivalency, what Stewart arguably was warning was against descending into the kind of fact-free performance that Colbert mimics to devastating effect night after night.

Stewart expressly framed his "Rally to Restore Sanity" as aimed at people who don't want to yell; who want to be able to disagree with other people's opinions without escalating to shouting matches. Participants were encouraged to design their own signs; they responded with slogans like "Somewhat Irritated About Extreme Outrage". Perhaps best capturing the sentiment was one sign, "If screaming makes you right, then the 3 year old down the street is a freakin' genius".

So it wasn't a rally to bring out the vote, and close the enthusiasm gap that promises to bring into office politicians that the majority of the electorate actually doesn't agree with. It wasn't a spurious "fair and balanced" performance either. It was instead a heart-felt plea to open up space for civil debate leading to cooperation in solving problems facing all of us.

What brings these two sets of numbers together? Simple. Solving problems together begins with taking on our necessary role in selecting those who will represent us, locally, on the state level, and nationally. There is no excuse for not exercising the right to vote. Not voting is not sane.

We decide.