Speaking For Us: How Jon Stewart Gave Millennials A Voice In American Politics

Each generation struggles to define its own voice. 

We are products of our times.  Growing up, we all have a vague sense of history but that sense cannot help us understand the times in which we live.  Baby boomers would have no idea how their world would be shaped by post-WWII policies.  Generation X would have no idea how their world would be shaped by the Vietnam conflict.  Generation Y would have no idea how their world would be shaped by Reaganomics.  And currently, we millennials had no idea how our world would be shaped by the events of September 11th.  

We try to understand our situation in its historical context, but for each situation there had been no historical context with which to draw comparison.  We had never had to rebuild after a second global conflict.  We had never had to unite against an unpopular war.  We had never had to adapt to top-down economic theory.  And we never had to experience a terrorist attack on American soil.  With each of these situations, we were left without a blueprint for how to feel, how to act, or how to live our lives in the most meaningful way.  Each situation briefly brought us together and then each situation inevitably drove us apart.  

As a sixteen-year-old, I remember watching the Twin Towers fall.  I had no idea what it meant.  I had no idea America even had enemies.  When a student in my math class asked to vote for which country attacked us, I raised by hand for Iraq because I vaguely knew we were involved in some kind of war over there a decade earlier.  The names Al Qaeda or Bin Laden were foreign to all of us.  In the coming days, as our nation struggled to deal with the terrorist attack, I did what everyone in my small New Hampshire home town did:  Bought a miniature flag and duct taped it to my car.  At the time, it was the only way I knew to fight terrorism.  

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, American patriotism was at an all-time high.  George W. Bush's approval rating soared to 90%, the highest in Gallup history.  Comedian Will Ferrell, appearing as George W. Bush for the Concert for New York in October of that year, remarked that he could smoke the terrorists into caves, then out of caves, then back into caves because "My approval rating is, like, 106% right now."  We saw the president as a beacon of hope in an otherwise uncertain world and we knew what he was doing was right.  Our nation knew that justice must be served for those horrific acts on September 11th, and so we supported the Bush administration when it said it had evidence that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that war was our only option.

Those that spoke out against the decision were immediately ostracized.  Bill Maher was gradually forced out of his role on ABC's Politically Incorrect for being too politically incorrect in saying that the terrorists who flew planes into the Twin Towers weren't cowards, but the real cowards were American troops who were launching Tomahawk missiles from a thousand miles.  Country music's The Dixie Chicks, were essentially blacklisted from major American radio after lead singer Natalie Maines said she was "ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas" after seeing a widespread anti-American sentiment abroad.  When documentary filmmaker Errol Morris won an Oscar in 2004 regarding the life of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he noted in his acceptance speech that the current war in Iraq felt eerily similar to the one in Vietnam.  After receiving a showering of boo's for his stance, host Billy Crystal then joked that Morris would most certainly be receiving a tax audit in the months to come.  

When the 2004 election came around, I was a much more seasoned twenty-year-old college student at a small liberal arts college.  For the first time in my life, I was beginning to see the difference between the two major political parties.  I recall a friend of mine who had a book of George W. Bush-isms and I thought to myself that it was no longer funny that this man was the leader of the free world.  When it came time for Bush's re-election, I was firmly in the corner of John Kerry, thanks in large part to a riveting keynote speech from an up-and-coming senator from the state of Illinois.  I remember being bothered that veterans would openly question the patriotism of one of their fellow soldiers.  When the election results were announced and Bush won his second term, I distinctly remember posting a Facebook status (because that's all you could do on the site at that time) along the lines of "50 million people in this country have no idea what's going on."  

Then and there, I could have easily withdrawn myself from the political world.  It would have been easy.  The guy you like runs a clean campaign, and he loses to the guy who runs a smear campaign.  It's a tale as old as time itself.  Why would I want to subject myself to a lifetime of rooting for the good guy if it was inevitable the bad guy always won?  Look at Bush.  Not a smart man, but a man with connections.  A man who used those connections to get himself elected not once, but twice as president of the United States.  There were more people like him out there, and it was inevitable that they too would lie, cheat, and steal their way to elected office at all levels of government.  It was of no use to think otherwise.  There was nothing that could be done as the system was irreparably damaged.  How could I be the only one who saw this? 

As it turns out, I wasn't.  

Sitting behind a desk, doing four shows a week from a New York City studio was a man named Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz.  Thanks to The Daily Show, for the first time in my life I was able to laugh about politics.  I mean, this man, was both knowledgeable and funny.  He saw our political system for what it was:  Sheer madness.  His team of researchers were able to showcase what current politicians were saying on an issue and then show how they said the exact opposite thing a few months ago.  He brought on guests of all nationalities and races and engaged them in meaningful political debate.  He seemed as at ease talking to an up-and-coming author as he did with the President of the United States.

Not only did he call out politicians, but he called out the American news media as a whole.  He hit all the casual suspects for being lazy and inept:  MSNBC, CNN, and, of course, Fox News.  He put these networks on blast for their hypocrisy and for doing a disservice to the American public for not doing their job.  He went on an interview with Tucker Carlson from CNN's Crossfire and basically told him his show was a plague on society.  Network executives agreed with Stewart and Crossfire was cancelled shortly after Stewart's appearance.  He got into a heated argument with CNBC's Jim Cramer for misleading the public on his show Mad Money.   Stewart called out Cramer for taking advantage of shady legal loopholes that allowed someone like him to maintain his wealth while his viewers had no option to do so and thus were unable to ever achieve the kind of financial success that Cramer himself could.

Through it all, Stewart did it with humor and grace.  In a world where political theater now exists solely for ratings (read:  Donald Trump), Stewart cut through the bullshit and got to the heart of important news stories without having an overt political agenda.  And yet, through his work we are now looking at a world where important issues are discussed by our political elite on a daily basis.  When Stewart started in 1999, the only internet news website that challenged the status quo was the Drudge Report, and that site existed solely to attack the Clinton White House.  Today we have sites like Politifact, MediaMatters, and Huffington Post along with the digital versions of major online newspapers as well as both conservative and progressive blogs for us all to enjoy.  

This digital revolution wasn't spearheaded by Stewart but we can't deny his influence in helping to create the online environment that now exists.  Not only are Daily Show clips used by other media sites to defend or refute a point, but Stewart's proteges have also contributed fantastic political commentary that now emanates from world wide web.  Thanks to Stewart's remarkable ability to identify talent, the web now has content from Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and soon will have additional content from Trevor Noah.  This quartet of cable hosts have engaged their audiences will powerful segments addressing today's pressing issues and they have been important players on the media stage.  Although each has adopted his own style, what remains is a dedication to telling the truth (or truthiness as Stephen Colbert might say) and to call out the bullshitters as Stewart had made his mission to do.  

Thanks to Jon Stewart, our political landscape has changed for the better.  At the very least, we know we aren't alone in recognizing the bullshit.  Let's be honest:  With no Jon Stewart there's no way that last night's first GOP debate is accompanied by things like debate bingo and drinking games.  By consistently pointing out the hypocritical views on these candidates, Stewart created a world where we know ahead of time exactly how these candidates will fabricate the truth, or outright lie, in an effort to score political points.  It's a world that you would have never thought possible ten years ago when it was seen as heresy to dare to criticize our president during a time of war.  Now, we have a world where everyone will a Twitter handle now feels empowered to voice his or her opinion to any number of elected representatives or any number of topics.

As unsettling as that may be for some, the truth is that is can be extremely comforting for others.  Each morning when I log onto see the day's news, I see a variety of websites calling out hypocrisy for our elected officials.  For every Twitter troll, there are many educated users who express genuine disappointment towards their representative for voting a certain way on a certain issue.  The influence of cable news is waning as The Big Three no longer control the way the American people view their world.  Today's millennials like myself no longer have a single nightly news anchor like Walter Cronkite to whom we depend upon for information.  Instead, we have site after site of news, opinions, and analyses from all over the political spectrum.  Yes, a lot of it is saturated in bullshit, but with the unregulated internet that can, and should be inspected.  Fortunately, for those of us who came of age in the era of Jon Stewart, we are now able to wade through all the bullshit and find the proper way to express our thoughts and opinions about the 21st political landscape in this country.

And that for me is what I am most thankful for.  Jon Stewart made it possible for us news junkies to be both concerned about our future but also to not take everything too seriously.  To become angry at the politician for lying but then laughing at the absurdity of the lie.  To criticize the network for their coverage of one topic but to applaud them for their coverage of another topic.  To become passionate about a particular issue but to realize that the other side is bringing up some valid points as well.  It was this simple idea that news didn't exist in a vacuum that became revolutionary to me and others like me.  Once we learned about the structure of news and how it functioned in the 21st century American political landscape, then, and only then, could we go about sharing our opinions with the world. 

Without Jon Stewart, we would have never found our voice.

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