It was a policy wonk’s rally. People who know too much to think activism can be effective in the current media environment. People who spent the last decade protesting the war or Gauntanamo to no avail, only to watch the Tea Party become a major force with minuscule numbers because of a television network’s support.
I think some are confusing the image of the rally described in the news, a hipster’s ironic send-up of political activism, with the event itself. Even the organizers knew that would happen. Perhaps they’ve even made that mistake themselves, because they were on stage. But it is a mistake.
For one thing, most attendees couldn’t even hear or see the stage or the various jumbotrons. So most people who were there ended up spending the rally interacting with the people around them. We’ve grown used to political movements aligning themselves with a visionary voice: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Barack Obama. But Jon Stewart isn’t that, and the people who attended the rally were not there primarily to hear his jokes or to listen to the musical acts he booked.
The vast majority of the signs were anti-extremist signs, mostly lampooning the Tea Party. Just as the vast majority of the Tea Party’s signs were against Democrats. I saw one sign I found offensive: “I masturbate to Christine O’Donnell.” Other than that, people with signs were generally proclaiming that they value tolerance and civility. It may have been buried in several layers of irony, but these people were for and against things. Civility *can* be a cause of its own.
It wasn’t all Democrats, though there were quite a number of “Legalize Marijuana” signs. It was a polarized group, though. There were Republicans, but they were Mike Castle Republicans, not Sarah Palin Republicans. (Many still wearing their campaign apparel.) There weren’t any anarchists, at least not in their characteristic “garb” or up to their anti-corporate vandalizing antics.
The one thing a rally can do (that a policy paper or late-night comedy show can’t) is remind people that they’re not alone. Gatherings give us a palpable insight into the power of our ideas, their support among strangers, and the thronging multitudes of others who want what we want.
In my paranoid moments, I sometimes worry that the rise of overly sentimental anti-intellectual demagoguery presages some form of fascism. (I don’t really believe this, any more than Juan Williams believes that all “garbed” Muslims are terrorists. But the gut fears what the gut fears.) After the Rally on Saturday, I can say with greater confidence that the moderates outnumbered the extremists.
It is tempting to reject moderation when one is frustrated by politics, and there is a long tradition of lampooning moderates for being unprincipled or quietist. But I’m with Cass Sunstein, and Halifax, on this one:
Why, after we have played the foole with throwing Whig and Tory at one another, as boys do snowballs, doe we grow angry at a new name, which by its true signification might do as much to put us into our witts, as the others have been to put us out of them? The Innocent Word Trimmer signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a Boat, and one part of the Company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary, it happneth there is a third Opinion, of those who conceave it would do as well, if the Boat went even, without endangering the Passengers.. . . [T]rue Vertue hath ever been thought a Trimmer, and to have its dwelling in the middle, between the two extreams. — Lord Halifax