How John Oliver hurts democracy, part IIPosted by Josh Taylor / 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.
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.”