And, let’s be honest, as Robert McCartney reports for
The Washington Post, most of these attendees have chosen sides. After repeating Stewart’s talking points about the media’s focus on conflict over substance, McCartney quotes one rally-goer as saying, ‘“I don’t think the Democrats are really willing to stand up for their message. If you believe in something like health care, you should go out and explain why you’re doing it, and be loud.”’

For the left-leaning crowd, attending a fake rally on the eve of a real election with major issues are at stake does nothing to prevent the downward spiral of political discourse. To those who were carrying satirical signs suggesting neither side has a claim on truth—or the absurdist ones that mock the very premise of protesting for a cause—what is the alternative? And what can you do to show that candidates who use your strategy can win elections?

As The New York Times’s David Carr observed, “media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution — not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court — seems to be above petty partisan bickering.” Is this the cause that brought some 200,000 people to the mall, or was it just a proxy for the frustration of the left who are weary of political battles who wanted to feel political without, you know, being political?

It’s unreasonable to ask Stewart to be the one to try to help his fans mature from this ambivalent frustration to constructive engagement, of course. He is valuable as a critic precisely because he’s a satirist. Maybe we should ask Barack Obama why he has failed to do it, because that certainly was what he seemed to promise to do when elected in 2008. But I think the real question is for those who feel Obama gave false hope for a different kind of politics. Were they surprised that, after Obama won, politics was still tough? Is the answer that when the going gets tough, the tough get ironic?

The Tea Partiers may propagate misinformation, but they organize and their candidates win. Messages matter in elections, and so does money. But more than anything, what matters is hard work—nothing changes minds more than volunteers talking to their neighbors on behalf of a candidate. And logging on to Facebook when you’re procrastinating at work to “like” a candidate or make a political comment is not the same as devoting time in the evenings when you could be home recovering from a hard day’s work or doing something infinitely more fun than phone banking—like watching comedians make fun of politicians.

Stewart, who regularly skewers media for emphasizing style over substance, needs to ask whether he’s falling into the same trap. And his fans, who may be fed up with “screaming on the left, yelling on the right,” need to be challenged to do more than “care.” No one’s going to do it differently if there’s not a better way to win.

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.