professors and practitioners pontificate on political parody and persuasion

I am at a University of Pennsylvania conference entitled “P6: Professors And Practitioners Pontificate on Political Parody And Persuasion.” The focus is really on parody. An example is Steven Colbert’s real creation of a PAC and a Super PAC during the 2012 election. (We heard that story very engagingly recounted by Trevor Potter, who was Colbert’s real–and also on-air–election lawyer). Survey data suggest that people who watched The Colbert Report really did learn about campaign finance issues.

Colbert behaved badly. For instance, he created a nonprofit 501(c)4 corporation that could accept donations without disclosing the donors’ names, and then he donated all that corporation’s money to his Super PAC to pay for ludicrous attack ads that really aired. The Super PAC was legally allowed to say that it had only one donor, the 501(c)4. Trevor Potter advised him to do this on air, and his legal advice was real. The advice may even have been creative, developing a new loophole that other PACs could exploit. Colbert was trying to satirize Karl Rove, who had both a Super PAC and a 501(c)4. But it seems that Rove did not actually transfer money in the way that Colbert did, perhaps because Potter had invented this loophole for Colbert. Rove’s lawyer contacted the show to complain that Colbert had implied Rove was using this loophole. In another context, such a complaint would have had the feel of a “cease and desist” letter. In the context of a comedy show, the complaint became fodder for further humor at Rove’s expense. So Colbert’s sins include: raising and laundering private money to pay for attack ads that he didn’t sincerely agree with, commissioning aggressive legal advice to create new loopholes, and turning a fact-check of his own show into an opportunity for satire.

To be clear: I think everything he did was great. It was educational and effective. Even if Potter invented a loophole or two for Colbert, they would have developed anyway, and it was excellent to demonstrate how fragile the system is. But Colbert’s work is interesting from a theoretical perspective because it promotes good deliberation by blatantly violating most of the traditional principles of deliberation. For instance, in Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s Democracy and Deliberation (p. 81), we’re told that good deliberators demonstrate “civic integrity,” which means “consistency in speech” (saying the same thing regardless of audience and context) and “political sincerity.” Good deliberators also display “consistency between speech and action” and “integrity of principle,” which means “the acceptance of the broader implications of the principles presupposed in one’s moral positions.” Colbert, in contrast, speaks and acts precisely contrary to his actual principles.

Perhaps deliberation should be viewed broadly. It has always included forms of discourse like satire and guerilla theater that violate the narrow norms of David Lewis’ “serious speech situations.” Or perhaps it is problematic that only Brechtian satire and gonzo journalism now cut through the clutter of mass communications–telling the truth no longer works.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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