Across the globe and from U.S. city to U.S. city, we watch daily as waves of protesters, many of them young, take to the streets. Such images seemed impossible five years ago. Back then the mainstream buzz was that the youth were "stoned slackers" -- too narcissistic and tech obsessed to engage in real protest. Where did all of this young activist energy come from?
The Colbert Nation.
Think that a loyal fan base for a cable television personality can't have anything in common with a young, politicized group of activists? No doubt there is a difference between the OWS protesters and the Colbert Nation, but they have more in common than you might suspect.
Of course some of the bits that have recently aired on the Colbert Report might be sending confusing messages. You might have seen Colbert suggest that OWS was wearing out its welcome, that the protesters should go home so that the wealthy, like Colbert, could "snort the ground-up bones of the poor." And if you've watched Colbert the last few nights he has seemed to mock the consensus building of OWS. Echoing the sort of coverage that has aired on Fox News and CNBC, Colbert suggests that without a leader OWS can't be a "real political movement." His solution? Name him their leader!
This coverage, though, is a perfect example of Colbert irony. He takes exaggerated, offensive positions to the extreme by impersonating an opinionated, self-serving, egomaniacal pundit. And he does it in order to get his audience to think, to ask questions, and to make their own decisions. In the space created by his ironic satire he encourages his audience to question the media, politicians, and the power structure in ways that are not totally dissimilar to OWS.
It is worth remembering that only just over a year ago Colbert and Jon Stewart held a rally on the National Mall with an eye to motivating greater voter turnout for the mid-term elections. Taking their faux political feud from the TV screen to the National Mall, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear drew a crowd of about 215,000 people. Over 2 million viewers watched the event on Comedy Central and 570,000 more watched via live video stream. Certainly no small numbers.
Some thought that the rally was meant to challenge the one held by Glenn Beck on August 28, 2010 -- the anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington -- that drew an estimated 87,000 attendees, but both Colbert and Stewart claimed that their motives were to call attention to political apathy and to the reductive logic of much American political discourse. Stewart announced the event saying:
"We're looking for people who think shouting is annoying...who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard. Think of our event as Woodstock, but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement."
Colbert, in character as a bloviating pundit, responded that the United States is built on three bedrock principles: freedom, liberty and fear. "They want to replace our fear with reason. But never forget 'reason' is just one letter away from 'treason.'"
In all of the coverage of the OWS protests thus far there have been few links, if any, made between the protesters and fans of Colbert and Stewart. Instead we have seen the media puzzle over who the protesters really are, what they really want, and what lengths they will really go to get it. The OWS protesters are clearly responding to the crisis of the nation, which has been exacerbated by the inability of the media to address issues important to the nation, but fans of Colbert and Stewart know that that is exactly what their shows have been covering for years.
Stewart and Colbert do this through satire and they have shows on Comedy Central, which explains why they may seem to have little in common with the seriousness of OWS. Missing that connection, though, means missing the art of satire since satirical humor mocks those who make a folly of politics and it exposes social absurdities that the public has come to take for granted. Such a form of mockery is the first step in showing the public that they can challenge the status quo.
Through humor and satire Colbert and Stewart have encouraged viewers to be more actively engaged in democracy, to question authority, and to refuse to allow corporations to run the country. It makes sense that some of their public would now be a part of the OWS protests. The same viewers who have flocked to these shows to laugh at smart comedians mocking the system are now taking to the streets.
While there is much overlap between the activism energy of Stewart and that of Colbert, the members of the Colbert Nation have taken the urge to question authority and challenge the status quo to new levels. Recall, for example, the fact that the term "Colbert Nation" was itself fan generated -- a group of fans launched their own "Colbert Nation" website well before it was taken over by Comedy Central.
That is not all. It was Colbert's fans that ignited public attention for Colbert's epic White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on April 29, 2006 when the mainstream media initially tried to ignore it. Fan-driven sites like Thank You Stephen Colbert offered many viewers their first chance to see the speech. More recently the Colbert Nation responded to Colbert's call to tweet in response to a gaff made by Senator Jon Kyl (R. Az.) which led to over 18 million tweets in a one hour period.
But aren't Colbert's fans just fans? Don't they just follow him? And aren't they having too much fun tweeting and editing Wikipedia entries to be serious about activism? The "it getters" of the Colbert Nation know that they can make a public impact, challenge authority, and enjoy themselves at the same time.
Have you watched the OWS footage? There you will see a range of people all of whom want to speak truth to power in the same ways that Colbert did the day he roasted Bush to his face. And you will see a group of people who refuse to think that political activism can't be fun no matter how serious it gets.
Sophia A. McClennen is a professor at Penn State University. Her new book is America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy.