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How John Oliver hurts democracy, part II

Posted by / January 6, 2019

I recently published an article that got a lot of criticism. In it, I argued that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight actually hurts democracy. It does so perhaps unintentionally, but in its attempts to be both funny and informative, I suggested it made some errors. Between comments calling me an idiot, a moron, etc., a few correctly pointed out that I lazily made my claim and offered no evidence to support it. They were right. In this article, I will more clearly state my case: John Oliver hurts democracy. That case will not come in the form of statistics (what statistics would prove such a point?) or quotes from disaffected Americans blaming Oliver for their lack of civic participation (who could pin their disengagement to a single factor?). Instead, I make my case by arguing it.

Qualifiers: 

This argument is not meant to suggest:

  • That John Oliver is single-handedly killing democracy.
  • That watching John Oliver is inherently a bad thing. It absolutely can be, based on the points below. But those points may not apply to every viewer.
  • That I am pro- or anti- Trump, pro- or anti-Obama, or have any political stance whatsoever.
  • That Oliver only ever praised Obama and only ever criticized Trump. That’s not the case I make below––though I do point out that the there is a definitely lopsided skew.

This argument is meant to suggest:

  • That Oliver’s program is not merely a comedy show, devoid of all significance.
  • That LWT has real, political implications that may not be positive, even for progressives.
  • That fans of Oliver should consider––just consider––that the show may have some downsides.

What is a healthy democracy? 

In order to understand what it means to hurt democracy, we need to agree upon an “unhurt,” or an ideal democracy. And we should also set aside the fact that America is a republic (since we elect representatives), and not a direct democracy (since every single person doesn’t vote for every single issue)––at least, we should set it aside for now. Here are some things that, hopefully, we can all agree are necessary for a healthy democracy:

  • An informed population: voters must be informed about what they’re voting for. Without a good grasp of current affairs, their votes are wasted.
  • An educated population: voters need to be educated not only about the issues, but about the world in general. They need to know how to think and read critically, and they need to use those skills to inform their politics.
  • A humble population: A recent Vox piece argued for the importance of humility. The realization that you are not infallible is crucial in a democracy, for the insistence that you are infallible is tyranny. When voters are humble, they’re willing to be wrong––they’re willing to root for the other side of the aisle if it means success for America.
  • A respectful population: When Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1800, it was called the Revolution of 1800. Why was it revolutionary? Because power passed peacefully from one party to another, and at that time in the world such a thing was revolutionary. While there has always been, and there will always be, animus from the losing side, without a foundational level of respect for all Americans democratic changes of power will not last.

How John Oliver hurts democracy

I think Oliver, in one way or another, hurts each of these points.

  • Oliver offers very biased information: Oliver’s show was always left-leaning. That’s why I liked it, because I’m left-leaning. I recently counted the number of episodes directly related to the sitting president in the most recent season and in season two. Of the 32 episodes in the most recent season, 11, about one-third, were closely connected to Trump and the Trump administration. In season two? None were as closely related to the Obama administration––despite covering topics like government surveillance. Oliver did cite the Obama administration’s unwillingness to consider statehood for U.S. territories  for about four seconds (really) in one episode, but it was almost as an aside. He spent more time on a clip from America’s Got Talent.
    • But this is a comedy show! That excuse has been used to dismiss criticisms against shows like Oliver’s or the Daily Show with John Stewart, but it’s a diversion. It doesn’t matter that these shows are comedies. Oliver’s show, though funny, makes convincing and well-researched claims and argues for policy change. It has real influence over people’s thinking.
    • So what if it’s biased? Everyone is biased! Yes. Everyone is biased. Does that mean, however, we should simply dig into our biases? It’s fine to agree with someone’s politics, but things get dangerous when that agreement comes with a catch––and there is a catch to Oliver’s show. See the next points for that.
  • Last Week Tonight stymies critical thinking: The “it’s just a comedy show” excuse that I mentioned early is nefarious. Comedy is powerful––and comedy speaks truth to power. It’s an important tool for criticizing those in power precisely because it circumvents critical thinking in the audience by couching truth (or falsehood) in humor. Comedy shows criticizing political administrations are important, even critical. But when those comedy shows package their humor in the form of “hard-hitting journalism,” you have to wonder where the line between jokes and journalism is, and whether the audience knows.
  • Last Week Tonight models the opposite of humility: I can’t tell you how much I can’t stand the current administration, and I’ve expressed that discontent through my midterm ballot. But I refuse to allow myself to “hate” a man I’ve never met. I don’t need to mock him or make fun of his family, I don’t need to surround myself with negativity in order to remind myself to vote a certain way. Instead, I’m actually rooting for the current administration. I want them to do a good job. Oliver’s show, on the other hand, seems like it revels in negativity. Maybe they feel an obligation, or maybe they think they’ll get a better audience (which they’re not––average viewership on YouTube is down). I found that watching Oliver too much made me feel superior to Trump and Trump supporters. Like I knew something they didn’t. That’s not a good way to view your fellow American, and it certainly won’t lead to real dialogue.
  • John Oliver’s show leads to disrespect: In a comment to one article I posted someone called me a snowflake. An alt-right snowflake. The existence of such a term is some kind of bizarre metacommentary on the state of both U.S. politics and Russian influence on U.S. politics, but that’s besides the point. So let me be clear: I’m not offended by Oliver or his show. I don’t like Trump’s administration, so criticisms of it don’t bother me. What bothers me is the lack of respectful discourse and a kind of educated humor that encourages audiences to do the same. Watching Last Week Tonight is bound to make people––even educated, thoughtful people––bitter and angry about Trump and his supporters. That’s a dangerous way to think about half of your country, and it’s not helpful.

Hopefully that explains the previous post a bit more. I look forward to reading your comments. I’ll close with words from Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture: “The buffoons and the comedians, who have become the maîtres à penser of contemporary society, speak the way they act: nothing strange about that. Their opinions purport to adhere to supposedly progressive ideas but, in reality, they merely repeat a snobbish left-wing script: stirring up trouble, giving people something to gossip about.”

More television.

6 Comments

  • There’s still no evidence presented here. You just talked about how the show makes YOU feel or how you think it might make other people behave, but don’t back anything up.

  • Rick Haute

    I’ve heard Oliver lampoon the Democrats aplenty. There’s reality, and it’s that most modern governments are travesties where the elite on both sides are (sometimes with good, overly altruistic intention) screwing the people. It just so happens that Republicans are especially disgusting.

  • Grace Bannigan

    Comparing comments on Trump’s administration to those on Obama’s administration is like comparing comments of Apples vs. rotten eggs. Sure, both are food, but you’re bound to have more negative comments on one of them. That’s not biased, it’s simply observing the observable.

  • “Like I knew something they didn’t.”

    Sadly this seems not something out of touch with reality but the simple truth.

    Trump-supporters might be satisfied by statements like “many people say”, “everyone knows” or “I think…., trust me”; but I’m not.
    As even Top WH officials on live interviews dismiss evidential facts and declare their own claims to be “alternative facts” without any actual proof, who will I believe and who is better informed about a matter?

    John Oliver might be a comedian, but he presents more evidence than the current administration.
    But John can add some sarcastic and self-critical remarks, which no journalist of the traditional kind would insert.

    So yes, viewers of John Oliver ARE largely better informed than the average Trump-voter.

  • Anon

    LWT, just like The Daily Show, are well-known not as ‘comedy shows’ (which they are not intended to be) but as ‘news shows using comedy to present information’ (as anyone remotely objective can see they intend to be). Claiming it stymies crtitcal thinking is so idiotic I think it made my brain hurt a little. They both point out facts that some other shows hide and, in fact, promote viewer researching things on their own.

  • Tony Brown

    Hey, as a fan of the John Oliver show, I have absolutely no problems with your criticism at all. In fact, you’re correct in all your points but not in your final answer; his show is a part of democracy, the balance to the fox news bias. You could argue they both hurt democracy and you’d be right to a certain extent, but they also represent their audiences. The audience of lwt tend to understand satire, they know they are watching a comedy show. A left leaning comedy show even. It is an echo chamber in the end, it is basically preaching to the converted, but you can’t suggest making something that appeals to your demographic makes you a problem for society, and the political system, as a whole.

    But you are right, it’s as fair and balanced as fox. But it also is what it is. Just another reflection of society. Bemoan society, not the mirror.

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