The one documented effect of political satire that has raised some eyebrows is a negative relationship between exposure to The Daily Show and Colbert and trust in the government. Avid consumers of political satire have lower trust in the government, regardless of who is in office. While the authors of the initial study that identified this relationship, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris, political scientists at East Carolina University, described it as a “detrimental effect,” many scholars have since pointed out that low political trust combined with high knowledge and efficacy likely constitutes a desirable democratic concoction.

After all, wouldn’t someone with low trust in government but extensive political knowledge and confidence in her ability to participate effectively, be skeptical, passionate, and engaged? Probably.

The healthy citizen

In exploring how these shows affect democracy, researchers like me have had to reconsider what healthy democratic citizenship ought to look like. Does citizenship have to involve a certain kind of policy-based knowledge or town-hall-meeting attendance? Do citizens have to watch traditional news and treat politics with a kind of due reverence? Perhaps there are viable models of citizenship that emphasize skepticism, playfulness, passion, and an emotional connection to the political process—ways of engaging with politics that aren’t so serious, or difficult.

American definitions of citizenship have evolved. In his 1998 book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, sociologist Michael Schudson documents the changing norms surrounding American citizenship. He points to the liquor-fueled celebrations of the 1700s and the raucous, party-based participatory culture of the 1800s. He reminds us that today’s rational model of citizenship—in which citizens are expected to become policy experts and dispassionate political participants—has not always been with us, but rather is an outgrowth of the Progressive movement of the 1890s. Suspicious of the emotional whims of the public, and concerned about the voters’ vulnerability to the manipulation of powerful political parties, Mugwump progressives sought to protect the political process from these dubious forces. Through changes in the ballot system, and an increasing emphasis on literacy over festival, the “Protestant Reformation” of American politics took place.

Translation: They sucked the fun out.

As Schudson colorfully describes, “Mugwump reformers were not keen on wild and woolly party democracy with its elevation of the election to an extraordinary collective carnivalesque ritual. Carnival was not their style.”

Schudson, who teaches at the Columbia Journalism School, does not advocate for one model of citizenship over another, as each of these eras was plagued by different threats to democratic health. But his reminder that rational, staid political discourse and participation are cultural constructions, not a fixed reality, allows us to consider some functional alternatives. 

To date, most quantitative studies of the impact of Colbert and The Daily Show have been rooted in rational political science, the un-fun Mugwump model of citizenship. We tend to ask respondents the old (sometimes 60-year-old) National Election Studies questions like, “Do you know how much of a majority is necessary for Congress to override a presidential veto?” (to measure civics knowledge), and, “Did you try to persuade someone whom to vote for?” and “Did you donate money?” (to measure political participation). Though there is evidence of a Stewart-Colbert effect when looking at these rational constructs, imagine what we will find if we begin to ask questions that better capture the spirit of what political humor really does for its viewers.

For example, when analyzing the impact of political satire, Jeffrey Jones, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia, suggests we should consider how viewers use political satire and parody to connect with politics and find meaning in political issues. Colbert and Stewart, Jones says, present political stories and issues in a way that is accessible and appealing, making viewers feel more connected to politics and empowered to think about it in an active and playful way.

Dannagal G. Young is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware and a research fellow at the university's Center for Political Communication. She is also a professional improvisational comedian with ComedySportz in Philadelphia.