Sure, Stewart's Rally Was Bigger, but Does It Matter?

Democrats hope that jokey signs this weekend translate into real votes come Tuesday

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Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally reportedly drew 215,000 people, far more than the 87,000 estimated by the same company to have attended Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" event earlier this year. But does it matter? Liberals are celebrating the numerical triumph, touting it as a sign that more Americans are put off by Tea Party-style politics than drawn to it. Others argue that the apolitical nature of the rally—more about jokes, satire, and media critique than an overtly Democratic agenda—makes it tough to gauge the political impact. What, exactly, were these thousands of people trying to say by showing up on a sunny afternoon in DC?

  • Size Doesn't Tell You Much—Most People Don't Go to Rallies  James Joyner of Outside the Beltway explains why the bigger size of Stewart's rally doesn't mean it represents a politically stronger movement than Glenn Beck's. First off, "those attending the Beck rally — and the Tea Party more generally — are a broad cross-section with only loose agreement on an issue cluster.  But they were drawn by a broad opposition to what the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress are doing.  It was, more or less, a purely political rally. The Stewart-Colbert rally, by contrast, was a lark.  ... There were doubtless a goodly number of people like myself, people who don’t really agree with Stewart’s politics but enjoy his show and prefer a more civil discourse about public policy. Furthermore, while the Beck rally was all about political speeches — with the big draws being Beck and Sarah Palin — yesterday’s event was as much a free concert as a political rally." He guesses that much more of Stewart's crowd was from closer places—New York, for example—than Beck's. Finally, he says, comparing rallies really can't tell you what the U.S. electorate thinks because "most of us just aren’t rally people."
  • However Goofy the Crowd, a Real Message of Political Frustration  Sabrina Tavernise and Brian Stelter of The New York Times don't gloss over the silly and comedic aspects of the rally. But they nevertheless detect a political undercurrent: "But beyond the goofiness, the rally seemed to be channeling something deep — a craving to be heard and a frustration with the lack of leadership, less by President Obama than by a Democratic Party that many participants described as timid, fearful, and failing to stand up for what they see as the president’s accomplishments. ... Some in the crowd expressed regret that it was comedians, not politicians, who were able to channel their frustration. 'We don’t have any place to turn,' said Michelle Sabol, 41, a jewelry designer from Pittsburgh. Mr. Stewart, she said, gave voice to her feeling of frustration and isolation."
  • Shows Most Americans Want More Civil Dialogue...  Though many of the attendees were liberal, Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly thinks the real point of the rally was to show that many Americans are fed up with the overheated state of political dialogue. That may not be a political message, but it's an important one. "From what I could tell, the Stewart/Colbert event had very little to do with politics, literally nothing to do with the elections (none of the speakers even mentioned voting), and everything to do with the sense that the basics of our civil discourse are badly off track. ... Indeed, when Stewart talked -- not just yesterday, but in the weeks leading up to the event -- about restoring 'sanity,' I'm fairly sure he wasn't talking about policy at any level. I just get the sense he's driven a little crazy by what's shown on broadcast media, and wants Americans to be able to talk to each other again. ... If, in America, sanity can continue to outnumber insanity by better than two-to-one, our future might not be so bleak after all."
  • ...But It Should Have Been About More   As a liberal, Taylor Marsh of the Huffington Post hopes the rally translates into political action, but believes that Stewart missed the point. She objects to the rally characterizing activism on the left as "screaming," saying that it misses "the mood of Americans and just how disgruntled they are with our political system." What Stewart represents is "the frustration people feel with all media that goes for ratings and rants over perspective, truth and objectivity." But despite Stewart's evenhanded critique of both sides, the "truth isn't subjective... Sometimes one side is absolutely wrong, like when Sarah Palin talked about 'death panels,' or when Rand Paul talked about private business owners being exempt from the Civil Rights Act. That would have been worth Stewart or Colbert pointing out," she concludes.
  • Want to Know How Much Size Matters? Wait 'Til Tuesday  Joe Coscarelli of the Village Voice also believes we read too much into crowd sizes. He mocks the AP for looking at Facebook RSVPs to estimate popular interest. Beyond that, too much talk of crowd sizes is "the horse race media and its ravenous followers at their worst and it is boring and it is mostly empty." What's wrong with it? "Legitimacy does not come from internet buzz or numbers, but from ideas and conviction and follow-through...It also will not prove anything, except how many relatively well off, (mostly) white people had not much else to do on the Saturday before Halloween and could make it to Washington D.C. Maybe it also proves that The Daily Show and Colbert Report have loyal viewers, even beyond their ratings...If there was a way to quantify energy, enthusiasm or loyalty, that might be useful. Oh wait, there might be -- it's called voting. Numbers matter on November 2nd."
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