The Young March Toward Cynicism

The Young March Toward Cynicism

By David Paul Kuhn - October 12, 2010

On Monday, pledges to attend Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" reached 200,000 on Facebook.

It has come to cynicism, only two years after Barack Obama won the presidency with an historic youth mandate.

This president, greeted with idealism unlike any since Kennedy, is now burdened by cynicism unlike any since Carter. The pessimism is so palpable that parodists are marching for America to, well, lighten up.

Two political satirists could galvanize a larger march than any activist, movement or politician this year. Only a fellow television personality, conservative Glenn Beck, might have rallied more. And just as Beck's rally captured the older, conservative and impassioned, this rally will capture the younger, liberal and discouraged.

About six in 10 young adults view politics more cynically than they did two years ago. More voters under age 30 say it does not matter which party controls Congress than support either party in control, according to a September Rock the Vote poll.

Into this breach come Stewart, Steven Colbert and a rally that symbolizes our cynical time. The scene itself begs parody. The children and grandchildren of the liberals who took to the National Mall to fight for civil rights or against the Vietnam War will march on October 30 for no right and against no wrong. They will stand for being nice (and for the fun of it).

Stewart wants to rally the "70 to 80 percent of the population" that disagrees but is not disagreeable (or crazy). "Unfortunately, the conversation and the process is controlled by the other 15 to 20 percent," Stewart said on his "Daily Show," echoing the moderates enduring lament.

This event began as a parody of the Beck rally. It has become one more reminder of Stewart and Colbert's influence. They are brilliant satirists, dependably refreshing alternatives to political spin. They make news appetizing, like sprinkling vegetables with sugar. And they humble a chattering class that takes itself far too seriously.

But they also take little seriously. They are comedians. They find the joke in politics. And all politics comes to feel like a joke. They don't mean to personify a cynical age and a cynical youth. But they do.

Stewart, in fact, may make his audience more cynical. College students exposed to the "Daily Show" are less likely to trust government and more likely to rate both the Democratic and Republican candidates more negatively, according to a 2006 study by East Carolina University political scientists Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris.

Of course, Stewart and Colbert are only as funny as their material. It's the establishment that has allowed itself to become a joke. A majority of Americans have significant trust in only three of 16 major institutions (the military, small business and police) according to Gallup. The least trusted: big business, health maintenance organizations and Congress.

But we expect youth to still believe. And on some measures, like their expectations to earn more next year, they remain optimistic. But their optimism has become watered down. Cynicism is creeping within the young.

Psychologists Kali Trzesniewski and M. Brent Donnellan, of the University of Western Ontario and Michigan State University respectively, studied the psychological profile of nearly a half-million Michigan high-school seniors from 1976 to 2006. They found that they were no more egotistical than '70s teens. But they were more cynical.

Obama once gave the young something to believe in. They still support Obama more than any other age. But he has lost as much support with the young as with the old. And Obama cannot look to youth to save his majority. In midterm contests, the young are far less likely to turn out than the old.

Obama will hold a town hall with young voters on Thursday. He's visiting more campuses of late. He's struggling to reignite the spark. But what are they to be excited about? Young adults have the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

And if they have a media voice, it remains Stewart and Colbert. About four in 10 of Stewart and Colbert's viewers are under age 30, according to the Pew Research Center. They are the leading news source for the young.

The median age of the "Daily Show" (39) and "The Colbert Report" (36) is crawling higher. But the median age for primetime cable news shows--Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper--is in the 60s. The number of viewers age 18 to 34 who watch Stewart remains at least ten fold the number of young adults who watch any of these leading news shows or the nightly news broadcasts (Colbert's young audience is eight fold larger), according to Nielsen.

This is why Washington takes their jokes so seriously, and Democrats must in particular. One year ago, leading liberal comics began to see the joke in Obama. Yet behind the punch line was a pang of disappointment. Stewart and Colbert's viewership is about twice as liberal as the national average. And Stewart regularly betrays his disillusion. "We came, we saw, we sucked," he recently said of Democrats, after they closed Congress early to campaign.

Comedian George Carlin once said, "Inside every cynical person there is a disappointed idealist." Now the mostly young, disappointed and liberal will come to Washington. Many more will arrive for the party. Stewart and Colbert do want to make a serious point. But their audience has been told everything is a laughing matter. It might now prove difficult to convince them that some things are not a joke.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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