Last week, comedian Stephen Colbert announced his entry into mucky world of American electoral politics with a satirical bid for nomination in the Republican South Carolina primary. In this short space of time Colbert was able to momentarily overshadow the deep banality of the Republican nomination process and cast attention on the absurd system of campaign finance laws presently in place in the US. He did this by releasing a series of attack ads that he (well, technically fellow comedian Jon Stewart) financed and produced using a Super PAC that allowed the channeling of an undisclosed but large amount of money raised from anonymous sources into .
The first attack ad (included in a previous post) accused the then leading candidate, Mitt Romney, of being a serial killer. This accusation was founded on the idea that if ‘corporations are people’, then Romney’s history of profiting from aggressive corporate restructures constitutes murder. This played on the underlying logic of the argument that organizations have the same right to free speech as individuals under the constitution, an argument that paved the way for unlimited financing of political campaigning.
This mucky blend of corporate profit-taking and political interference was the focus of his second attack ad.
Having promised the fix the political process with more senseless ads of his own, the actual campaign by Colbert for nomination hit an early stumbling block when it became clear that he was not going to be on the ballot as the list of nominees had already been finalized. This would not stop him from wreaking havoc.
One the candidates, Herman Cain, a former pizza empire magnate was already one of the strangest candidates going around, someone so odd to be almost immune to satire. Take for instance this actual ad that Cain produced and financed. It must be one of the weirdest campaign ads of all time. It’s either a stroke of genius or complete lunacy.
Having had virtually no impact in polls leading up to the primaries Cain had withdrawn his candidacy but his name remained on the South Carolina ballot, having been confirmed weeks earlier. With this in mind Colbert offered the following advice for his supporters in his third ad.
He then followed this ad with another attacking himself for playing games with electoral process by running under the name of another candidate, suggesting that they instead vote for Cain.
All the while through this process Colbert twas technically not involved in the production or financing of any of these ads, as the laws around Super PACs prohibit candidates from running or coordinating with them in any way. This issue was satirized extensively in a number of guest spots on one another’s shows stretching the bounds of what could credulously not be considered coordination. These segments were constantly watched over by their lawyer who would warm them if they were getting close to coordinating under the guidelines of the Super PAC regulations.
A particular highlight was the question of employing staff to run the Super PAC. Colbert had been using his own staff writers to run the Super PAC and produce ads. Upon receiving control of the Super PAC, Stewart inquired whether he could continue to use Colbert’s writers and continue to house them in Colbert’s writer’s rooms. This was considered OK so long as those who worked for the Super PAC didn’t coordinate with those that wrote for Colbert’s show. Colbert suggested this would not be a problem as he had split them into a ‘blue team’ and a ‘red team’. The blue team were shown wearing red t-shirts with the word ‘blue’ written in orange and the red team wearing blue t-shirts with the word ‘red’ written in orange. Such was the ridicule heaped upon the notion of ‘non-coordination’.
In the final days before the primary, Colbert hosted a rally in his home town of Charleston to campaign for voters to vote for Cain in lieu of himself. He arrived in Cain’s campaign bus and sung on stage with Cain before giving a satirical election speech full of references to the loopholes he was exploiting.
Ultimately, however, Colbert’s ads and campaigning did not translate in massive votes for Cain as some might have hoped. Cain attracted 6,500 votes despite having withdrawn his candidancy and having only attracted a few hundred in the prior Iowa primary. While this satire may not have succeeded at the ballot box, between the two of them, Colbert and Stewart have managed to educate many on what had previously been esoteric minutiae and given rise to widespread calls for campaign financing reform.
In addition to pointing out the problems of the campaign financing, Colbert’s ads have drawn attention to a major contradiction within the central Republican party platform, namely, the tension between grass-roots traditional values and rampant free market capitalism. Romney’s corporate history and immense personal wealth has been the point of weakness against attacks from other Republican candidates. But the contradiction that has become abundantly clear during the course of the South Carolina primary was that the candidates were all millionaires, accusing each other of being millionaires, all the while claiming to represent interests of struggling Americans against corporate interests yet somehow still being in favor of businesses being given every opportunity to succeed unhindered by government regulations.