The first irony of the major outlets’ prohibiting their employees from attending this weekend’s Stewart/Colbert rally is that their effort to preserve impartiality was, in fact, an admission of bias. Unless I missed the memo, no such edicts preceded Glenn Beck’s event in August, probably because it never occurred to anyone that legions of reporters would want to take part in a conservative faithapalooza on the spot where Martin Luther King once stood.

The New York Times went to great lengths to draw the event as “a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician,” but that wasn’t the rally I saw. Indeed, the second irony of the ban on journalist participation is that Stewart’s fake rally was truly apolitical, even anti-political. (This is in contrast to Beck, who presented an indisputably political rally keynoted by a politician, Sarah Palin, while straight-up lying that the event was “not about politics.”) The only specified target of the performers’ ire was cable news, and everyone already knows radio and print journalists don’t think anything on television can be called journalism. It was left-leaning only in its satirical disdain for right-wing hyperbole. This irony may be a political critique, but its overall effect is to promote a juvenile political disengagement.

While it may be heartening to progressives that Stewart’s turnout walloped Beck’s, they should be deeply concerned about the event’s message to the people the movement must rely on to advance the causes it cares about. By relentlessly parodying the divisive tone of political debate without offering an alternative model for politicking, the event’s net effect is to make walking away from the political process seem like a rational decision. Or, even worse, a principled one.

In the middle of the rally, Stewart introduced the musician Kid Rock by saying he was going to debut a new song that uniquely embodied the spirit of the day. Here’s the chorus:

I hear screaming on the left, yelling on the right,
I’m sitting in the middle trying to live my life.
Because I can’t stop the war, shelter homeless, feed the poor.
I can’t walk on water, can’t save your sons and daughters.
I can’t change the world and make things better.
But the least that I can do… is care.

Thank you, Kid Rock, for giving us an anthem to self-congratulatory disengagement. A reasonable person finds both the right and left equally irrelevant and the problems of the world so big that he cannot affect them. A reasonable person does not “try to walk on water,” but it’s OK to sit on our couches as long as we feel bad about how much stuff sucks.

“Call us Generation I. I for irony, iPhones, and the Internet,” wrote Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post. “We know what happens to people who take themselves seriously. They become bent and broken with care and develop arterial plaques. Sometimes they’re elected to political office…. The rally exists in a parallel universe in which millennials are politically active.”

Frustration with divisive politics and distaste for the drudgery that is the bulk of political work are perfectly legitimate. But creating a “parallel universe” where satire is a stand-in for engagement is the political equivalent of Never-Never Land for citizens who won’t grow up. Stewart may be right that a reasonable person should be fed up with over-the-top political rhetoric, but they can do a lot more than “care.” The only way to change the tone of the political process—and the pundit operations that serves as its midwife—is to prove that an alternative model works. That means it’s not enough to feel bad or laugh, though it’s understandable to need a break from politics to recharge. If you want things to be different, though, you have to get involved in the process and, yes, choose sides.

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.

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