By Mark Engler
To the teacher:
Recently comedian Stephen Colbert of TV's Comedy Central has gained attention for not only satirizing our political system, but also participating in it. As a means of drawing attention to (and making fun of) the state of American campaign finance laws, Colbert has formed his own "Super PAC" and has been using it to run humorous campaign advertisements in states along the Republican presidential primary trail. In the process, he is giving his audience a lesson about how money functions in U.S. elections.
So far, the reception has been mixed. While some angry critics charge Colbert with making a mockery of our system, other commentators believe that his comedy is doing a brilliant job of highlighting the corrosive influence of money in politics.
This lesson begins with students viewing a Colbert Report program about his Super PAC. Then students read and discuss a profile of Colbert's political satire. A second reading examines some of the responses to it, positive and negative, and encourages students to discuss their own views. Readings include embedded links to Colbert's Super PAC ads. A homework assignment asks students to read Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," view additional clips of Stephen Colbert's program, and then compare and contrast these forms of satire.
Colbert Report video
Begin by having students view this 4:40 minute excerpt from the Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert's attorney Trevor Potter presents a letter for a media exemption so that Colbert can talk about his Super PAC, "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow," on the air.
Afterwards, ask students for their reactions to the video. Ask:
- What is a Super PAC?
- What do you think is Colbert's intention in creating the Super PAC?
- What do you think Colbert trying to saying about them?
Student Reading 1:
Campaign Finance Laws & the Colbert Super PAC
Most Americans know Stephen Colbert as the Comedy Central host who pokes fun at the media and politicians on his nightly show, the Colbert Report. Rarely breaking character, Colbert plays the role of a staunch conservative, in the mold of Fox News's Bill O'Reilly. The act is designed to highlight the absurdities of the American political system in general and the conservative viewpoint in particular. While Colbert's Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart takes a more sarcastic approach in his critiques and makes no attempt to hide his liberal leanings, Colbert's character is designed to spoof the conservative viewpoint through exaggerated imitation.
On occasion, Colbert has taken his act beyond his 30-minute television time slot and into real-life politics. In 2008, he petitioned unsuccessfully to have his name put on the South Carolina ballot as a candidate for president. This year, Colbert founded the "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow." The organization is one of a new breed of "Super PAC" (political action committees).
In 2010, the Supreme Court made a ruling that has changed our election process. In the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the justices ruled that the government may not prohibit corporations and labor unions from making independent political expenditures. That decision spurred the creation of Super PACs - entities that are permitted to raise unlimited funds from corporations, other groups, and individuals. They are subject to fewer restrictions than the regular political action committees that have been part of our political system for decades. With the Republican presidential primary race in full swing, debates about Super PACs and their impact of money in US politics have intensified.
In July 2011, Colbert filed with the Federal Election Commission for the creation of his Super PAC. And in September, Colbert announced the formation of a non-profit organization with the sole purpose of funneling anonymous, unlimited donations into the Super PAC. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, this is totally legal under federal election laws. As Colbert explained in an October email to his supporters:
As you know, when we began Colbert Super PAC, we had a simple dream; to use the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling to fashion a massive money cannon that would make all those who seek the White House quake with fear and beg our allegiance... in strict accordance with federal election law.
And you've responded generously; giving your (or, possibly, your parents') hard-earned money in record numbers. And although we value those donations, we were somewhat surprised to note that none of them ended in '-illion.'
That is why I formed the Colbert Super PAC S.H.H., a 501(c)(4), to help lure the big donors. As anybody who thumbs through the tax code on the toilet knows, a 501(c)(4) organization is a nonprofit that can take unlimited donations and never has to report the donors. This should be especially helpful considering that establishing this new 501(c)(4) has quadrupled our parentheses budget.
Already, we have gotten a massive donation from [NAME WITHHELD], a kind and [ADJECTIVE WITHHELD] person who only wants to [OBJECTIVE WITHHELD]."
Subsequently, Colbert's Super PAC produced a number of humorous political advertisements, which have aired in states along the Republican presidential primary trail. One ad, which ran in Iowa, urged Iowans to write in "Rick Parry" instead of "Rick Perry" - the Governor of Texas and former candidate for the Republican nomination - in the Ames straw poll. (The Super PAC ad is included in this 5-minuteColbert Report segment, which begins with a short real ad and a satiric report on the Iowa caucus.)
Another ad, which ran in South Carolina, accused Mitt Romney of being a "serial killer" - playing on Romney's statement that "corporations are people," as well as his role in a business that shut down some of the companies it bought.
In January 2012, the saga of the "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" Super PAC took another turn as Colbert announced his intention to run for "President of the United States of South Carolina." Legally, this meant that Colbert had to relinquish control of his Super PAC, which he handed over to friend and colleague Jon Stewart. While Super PACs cannot coordinate directly with candidates or political parties, they can, according to election law, communicate through the media. In a press release, Stewart denied that the PAC would coordinate with Colbert. He stated, "Stephen and I have in no way have worked out a series of Morse-code blinks to convey information with each other on our respective shows."
In a New York Times article about Colbert's satirical Super PAC, the comedian's lawyer, Trevor Potter, the former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission, discussed Colbert's possible aims for satirizing the world of campaign finance:
"I'm very careful not to ascribe motive to him - he can speak for himself," [Potter] said. "I don't know what he's thinking. He can find the laws ironic or funny or absurd. But he's illustrating how the system works by using it. By starting a super PAC, creating a (c)4, filing with the FEC, he can bring the audience inside the system. He can show them how it works and then leave them to conclude whether this is how it ought to work."
1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What is Colbert's persona on the Colbert Report? Why do you think he created this persona?
3. According to the reading, what changes to campaign finance were allowed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling?
4. Do you think that financial donations to a political campaign are a form of free speech that should not be restricted? Or do you think that unlimited anonymous contributions harm our political system? Explain your position.
Student Reading 2:
The Impact of Satire: Two Opposing Views on Colbert
So, is Stephen Colbert a brilliant comedian with a knack for exposing the flaws in the American political system? Or is he a troublemaker whose sole aims are to mock the system or promote a partisan political agenda?
During a January 20, 2012, forum at Winthrop University, NBC News political director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd expressed his concerns that Colbert's actions have only served to increase cynicism about the American political process. He also claims they might promote an anti-Republican agenda:
"He is making a mockery of the system," Todd said. "....Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he's doing it in a way that feels like he's trying to influence it with his own agenda and that may be anti-Republican."
"What is his real agenda here?" [Todd added]. "Is it to educate the public about the dangers of money and politics, and what's going on? Or is it simply to marginalize the Republican Party? I think if I were a Republican candidate I would be concerned about that."
Meanwhile, others - such as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dick Polman - argue that a good dose of ridicule is just what the American political system needs to bring its absurdities into focus. He writes:
No dose of humor could leave us feeling sunny about a slimy Republican campaign that's awash in unprecedented cash, thanks to a US Supreme Court ruling that has rendered the process farcical. But [Mark] Twain rightfully suggests it's mentally healthy to laugh at life's idiocies, that humor can tamp down irritations if we view them through the prism of farce.
Which is why Stephen Colbert, a latter-day Twain and mock presidential candidate, is so valuable these days. Absurdism may be the only effective way to expose the absurdities of campaign finance laws. The laws have become so ludicrous that they require a satirist to unpack them in the pursuit of truth (or, as he calls it, "truthiness").
The subject is open for debate, and each viewer can make up his or her own mind: Are Stephen Colbert's adventures in politics an effective form of satire? Or is he just cynically mocking the system and promoting an anti-Republican agenda?
1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What do you think of Stephen Colbert's Super PAC? Do you think it is funny? Is it educational? Is it designed to support a particular political agenda?
3. Critics of Colbert suggest that humor can increase cynicism about our political system. Do you think that this is a danger?
4. Can you think of other examples of political satire, from either the past or present?
Comparing Political Satirists: Swift and Colbert
One of the most widely read and influential works of political satire is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Published in 1729, this essay took on the issue of poverty in Ireland. Ask students to read Swift's essay and then view the clips of Colbert's programs that are embedded in the above readings. Compare and contrast the two works of satire.
Swift's essay is available in the public domain at the following link:
This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.
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