After the unofficial Republican presidential straw poll in Iowa it was clear: Stephen Colbert has created a parallel universe, and we have all moved into it. What will ensue we cannot know. When parallel universes collide, quantum theorists tell us, the results can be explosive: the Big Bang itself may have resulted from such a collision.
Colbert’s universe is much like our own: Irony reigns, contradictions don’t matter and politics and posturing are indistinguishable. Civic discourse reduces to attack ads, barely coherent and flying in all directions. That political reality we know well. Now, though, Colbert takes us further, to the edge of that reality and beyond.
Colbert’s surrealist political commentary burst forth in 2005 with the debut of The Colbert Report—and of "truthiness," which Colbert proclaimed was "truth that comes from the gut, not books." "I don’t trust books," he declared. "They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. We are a divided nation . . . between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart." Emphatically (but with a twinkle) Colbert endorsed the latter, finishing with a pledge: "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."1
Truthiness immediately entered the lexicon, as the 2005 "word of the year" of the American Dialectic Association, and the 2006 selection for the same accolade by the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster. But truthiness remains a manifestly satirical notion, taking its place just outside the boundary of serious discourse, parodying that discourse, revealing its absurd side.
In Iowa Colbert went further, moving beyond mere satire to outright tricksterism. No longer standing outside the political process, he now stepped inside, disrupting it intentionally, founding an actual super-PAC (Political Action Committee) and putting it to work influencing the 2011 Iowa Republican straw poll.
The super-PAC, "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" (ABTT) is the real thing—a legitimate political action committee, scrupulously operating under rules arising from the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.2 ABTT is duly registered with the Federal Elections Commission, having previously obtained a Commission advisory opinion affirming its right to "solicit and accept unlimited contributions from individuals, political committees, corporations, and labor organizations."3 Under the Court-endorsed protection of the First Amendment, ABTT, like any super-PAC, can fund whatever media advertising it chooses, endorsing or opposing candidates or causes at will. It need not disclose the amounts of donor contributions; in fact, by ingeniously affiliating with a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, it can even evade disclosure of its donors’ identities.4 Required not to link or coordinate with any political campaign or candidate, it may say anything it cares to say so long as no campaign controls its message. Says Colbert: "This is 100 percent legal and at least ten percent ethical."5
So, should we worry?
David Carr, writing in The New York Times, opines that perhaps we should. Such cavalier messing about in Iowa politics could sabotage the process, Carr suggests, especially given that Colbert is not a serious politician, not even a journalist, but a mere comedian. His conduct in Iowa thus opens him to "real-world criticism for inserting himself in the political process so directly. . . . It’s as though Jonathan Swift took his satirical suggestion about Irish babies one step further and actually cooked one."6
Such hyperbole can be fun. But Swift’s hypothetical fricasseed baby, actually cooked, would have represented real, unmistakable harm done—crossing a bright line from satire into villainy. But has Colbert done actual harm with his satirical PACkery? It’s a question worth taking seriously. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution "can’t think of any real parallel in history. . . . Yes, comedians have always told jokes about elections, but this is quite different. This is a funny person being very serious, actually talking about process. What comedian talks about process?"7
But Hess doesn’t quite have it right. It’s not that Colbert is uniquely "talking about process"; that has been done often enough before. Will Rogers’ famous denial that he belonged to “any organized political party—I’m a Democrat” is paradigmatic. Comedian Pat Paulsen commented devastatingly on process in 1968, running a gag presidential campaign that took off from the flight deck of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Jon Stewart does likewise every evening on The Daily Show.
Nor is it so clear that Colbert is in fact "being very serious" with what he is doing—except perhaps in one respect: Colbert actually engages in the political process to make his point. Will Rogers and Pat Paulsen stopped short of actually entering political primaries (or even straw polls), or of publicly soliciting campaign funds. That’s the line that Colbert has crossed. His political point really has to do with campaign finance, and he makes his point by actually engaging in campaign finance. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, suggests that Colbert may have drawn the public’s attention to this dry but vital subject more effectively than any "serious" commentator. But, she cautions, "it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, like a specific campaign or the electoral system."8
How exactly might somebody get hurt? Remember: Colbert is the comedic offspring of Jon Stewart, who refers to his enterprise as "fake news." That disclaimer Stewart and Colbert both regard as ethically essential to their work.
But Colbert’s super-PAC isn’t fake. The ads it ran before the Iowa poll actually entreated Iowans to vote a particular way—albeit while also ridiculing PACs in general. In designedly chaotic fashion, the ads first decried the "outside" PAC funds that had already urged write-in votes for the (then undeclared) candidacy of Texas governor Rick Perry. Then they cut to bucolic "morning-in-America" shots of hardy farmers, and in a final twist endorsed Perry—or not. "Vote for Rick Perry," they intoned—"but not their Rick Perry. Our Rick Parry. Parry with an 'A.' 'A' for America—'A' for Iowa."9 And on August 13 the straw poll voters (well, 718 of them anyway) responded, writing in Perry—or "Parry"—for president. Officials solemnly reported that all "Parry" votes would be counted as "Perry" votes, with no tally kept to show how many were spelled with an "A." (That’s how it’s done, apparently, when a write-in candidate’s name is misspelled. Evidently no one much worries—Colbert clearly didn’t consider the possibility—that there might actually be a Rick Parry-with-an-"A" whose interests might be affected by all this). Collaborating with Des Moines TV station WOI, Colbert has comically but so far unsuccessfully challenged Republican officials to release a tally of the 718 Perry voters, distinguishing the "A" spelling from the "E." The whole affair—the ABTT ads along with the Republicans' refusal to break down the tally—has to some extent obscured voter intent. In some measure it may even have hurt the Perry campaign. Perhaps that’s the somebody gets hurt" scenario that worries Krumholz. As for Colbert, he seems as happy as a mad scientist in a B movie, tinkering away with presidential politics, letting the chips fall where they may. But his tinkering, intended mainly to amuse (or so we thought), may actually have affected the results.
How serious is that? We may note first that the Perry/Parry votes altogether made up just 4.3% of the straw poll total—itself just 16,836 votes. We may remember too that the Iowa straw poll is itself a fake election, a media event frankly designed as such, empty of consequence—part of a State Fair, occurring in one municipality only, carried out by the Republican Party rather than by election officials, with no delegates at stake, during the political off-season when there is no real election news for the press to cover. In those circumstances Colbert’s meddling must be judged a transgression less grave than the hypothetical cooked baby of Jonathan Swift. Let us not call Colbert to account for election tinkering when there was no election to begin with.
But of course there might have been. Colbert’s powerful super-PAC weapon, which he plays with like a child with a handgun, could be used in the same reckless way when the stakes are real and high. And that, of course, is the whole point. The Supreme Court has now placed this weapon within reach of every child in town. The child needs only money enough to load and fire it.
Politics never fail to blur the line between fakery and reality. Fake though it was, the Iowa poll did lead Tim Pawlenty to drop out of the race. The two hopefuls who finished ahead of him, Michele Bachman and the hapless but persistent Ron Paul, seem not to have experienced any great boost from it. Rick Santorum came in fourth, with more than twice the votes of Mitt Romney and Rick Perry combined, and yet it was Romney and Perry whom the media continued to celebrate as front-runners as shown by more scientific polling. The Iowa straw poll, in short, was a political non-event. So where exactly should we draw the line between the real and the fake in reporting on it—if indeed we should report at all?
And where, for that matter, should we draw the line between the real and the fake in presidential politics taken as a whole? Or where in all of contemporary U. S. politics, as we watch Congress and the White House jockeying and posturing while the country teeters on the brink of default and economic collapse? However we answer, we owe a debt to Stephen Colbert for making us think about it, even if only for a moment.
1. Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, televised by Comedy Central, October 17, 2005. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/24039/october-17-2005/the-word---truthiness
2. Supreme Court of the United States, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, No. 08-205, January 21, 2010. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-205.pdf
3. C. L. Bauerly, Federal Elections Commission Advisory Opinion 2011-11, June 20, 2011. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from http://www.fec.gov/searchao
4. Colbert has been disclosing his donors' identities. Calling them "heroes," he runs their names in a crawl across the bottom of the screen each night on The Colbert Report. In addition to his super-PAC, however, Colbert has now formed a new organization—a nonprofit incorporated under the terms of sec. 501(c)(4) of the Federal Tax Code. That status permits the new organization—named Anonymous Shell Corporation—to solicit funds and to use them for political purposes, even to contribute them to his super-PAC, without disclosing donors’ names. While on the air with his attorney (former Federal Elections Commissioner Trevor Potter), Colbert signed the required papers to incorporate his 501(c)(4) as a Delaware corporation, during The Colbert Report program of September 29, 2011. In doing so, Colbert asked Potter, "What is the difference between this and money laundering?" "Hard to say," Potter responded. The on-air establishment of the Anonymous Shell Corporation of Delaware may be seen online at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/398531/september-29-2011/colbert-super-pac---trevor-potter---stephen-s-shell-corporation?redirect=true . A Federal Elections Commission brochure delineating the use of 501(c)(4) organizations in funding political campaigns is available at http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/electioneering.shtml
5. Quoted by D. Carr, "Comic’s PAC Is More than a Gag," The New York Times, August 21, 2011. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/business/media/stephen-colberts-pac-is-more-than-a-gag.html?_r=1&ref=stephencolbert
6. D. Carr, op. cit.
7. Quoted by Carr, op. cit.