Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, a generally empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the established formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky outfits, and attempting, overall, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”
There was a time when irony was supposed to have died—when Americans, frightened and weary, worried that the world had robbed them of their constitutional right to laughter. They needn’t have fretted: Irony—satire—political discourse that operates through the productive hedge of the joke—have not only evaded death in past decades; they have, instead, been enjoying a renaissance. Jokes have informed many prominent, though certainly not all, political protests; they have also, more broadly, come to shape the way people understand the world around them. Many Americans get their news filtered through late-night comedy and their outrages filtered through Saturday Night Live. They—we—turn to memes to express both indignation and joy. Jokes, in other words, with their charms and their appealing self-effacement and their plausible deniability (just kidding!), are helping people to do the messy work of democracy: to engage, to argue, and, every once in a while, to launch a successful bid for the presidency of the United States.