Stephen Colbert, now of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, is a darling of liberals and progressives, much like his contemporaries Jon Stewart and John Oliver. His television show, The Colbert Report, was praised for its liberal satire, cultural relevance, and longevity before it ended in 2014, and served as a counterweight to the neoconservatism that dominated the presidency of George W. Bush.
Colbert gained popularity in large part due to his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where he used the stage to deliver a stinging critique of the Bush administration that greatly embarrassed Bush and other Washington figures. This rare moment in modern politics — a politician directly confronted with an obvious but rarely articulated assessment of his crimes by an outsider inside an establishment space — made Colbert a standard bearer of dissent from left of the center.
However, as Steve Almond of The Baffler commented in 2012, his show quickly developed into an outlet for liberal frustration: one that generally defanged criticism and diffused public unrest. At the same time, Colbert celebrated the wrong people and lazy and regressive ideas. He routinely gave a platform to reprehensible people and pitched them softball questions but was rarely held accountable for abandoning his responsibility to his viewers. One of the more egregious examples of this was what Almond described as Colbert’s week-long “infomercial” for the military that culminated with General Raymond Odierno shaving his head. Another example was Colbert’s crass and nonsensical celebration of Henry Kissinger. In contrast to Jon Stewart’s straightforward public persona, the nature of Colbert’s satirical character much more effectively hid this deception from viewers.
Emblematic of Colbert’s toothless criticism was the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held with Jon Stewart at the height of their influence. The Rally did not effectively critique noxious and harmful neoconservative ideas, and instead dissolved into an American-flag-draped mawkish appeal to civility, equating dissent from the left with that from the right and arguing for generic “compromise.”
For a gathering that aimed to be a response to Tea Party rhetoric on the right, Colbert and Stewart defaulted to smarmy centrist platitudes instead of criticizing the people and ideas they ostensibly opposed. These are the same sort of tactics used by the establishment to belittle activists and organizers on the Left and to promote unpopular and regressive “consensus” ideas like austerity. Satire is supposed to challenge the powerful and hold them accountable for their actions. But at a political moment of their making — 215,000 people were at the rally — Stewart and Colbert abdicated their responsibility to their fans.
The final episode of Colbert’s show was no different. It vapidly celebrated a laundry list of people who have manifestly caused harm in the world:
The list of celebrities who appeared included Mike Huckabee, Thomas Friedman, Grover Norquist, Andrew Sullivan, Samantha Power, and Henry Kissinger. These are people who have terrible ideas, who are either war mongers or war apologists, and in the case of Henry Kissinger, are responsible for enormous suffering and death.
The episode was widely covered, and most of that coverage was fawning. The few critiques the episode did get (like from Megan Garber in The Atlantic) failed to connect the episode to the show’s decline.
Colbert’s celebration of power is arguably worse on his new show. Although the content is less overtly political, it is nevertheless innately political. Needing to appeal to a wider audience, Colbert is even more cautious about choosing his guests and keeping up the guise of appearing neutral. The effect of this is quite insidious. Viewers who remember the old Colbert now uncritically digest the faux apolitical nature of the program and come to accept the neoliberal politics that he promotes by default.
For example, recent guests included astroturf activist and now-Baltimore mayoral candidate Deray Mckesson and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Colbert puffed up Mckesson without mentioning that Mckesson supports unprecedented education privatization that contradicts his politics. With Power, Colbert used an insulting and unfunny geography gag to allow her ample space to state the official U.S. position on geopolitical issues — unchallenged, of course.
Perhaps the most nauseating segment in the last few months was when Colbert shared an unremarkable personal moment he had with late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. In their short encounter, Scalia showed Colbert basic humanity after his Correspondents’ Dinner speech in 2006. Colbert used this as a reason to join the chorus of talking heads worshiping Scalia in death and favorably recasting his life, using Scalia’s ability to have friendships with Justices who had markedly different politics than his as a device in that re-framing. (It also allowed Colbert to trot out the speech that popularized him with many liberals in the first place.)
This revisionism leaves out the simplest and most coherent interpretation of Scalia’s life: that he was devoted to furthering reactionary politics, blatantly racist, and a failed legal scholar. While the moment with Scalia might be important to Colbert personally, it is irrelevant when assessing Scalia’s life and worth as a public figure or when commenting on his death to a public audience. Similarly, although Justices Kagan and Ginsburg might have valued their personal friendships with Scalia, this is not grounds for anyone to gloss over his abhorrent politics when reviewing his life.
Colbert’s platforms, both his current show and his previous one, could have been used to subvert the powerful and promote progressive ideas. While there are bright moments in his career — the aforementioned Correspondents’ Dinner as well as the Colbert Super PAC — overall he betrayed his viewers and their interests. Perhaps that’s unsurprising given the constraints he was under being on corporate-owned networks. Or maybe Colbert just didn’t want to keep fighting for the politics he came to represent.
Either way, promoting people like Kissinger casts aside the victims of American domestic and foreign policy over the last century — for example, those who died due to American interventions overseas or from the dismantling of programs that serve the poor — and enables reprehensible people in the future. There is an enormous emotional distance between the average Colbert viewer and the people who are actively harmed by bad policy. Celebrating the powerful people behind these unconscionable decisions and policy brings the public closer to empathizing with those people, rather than those at their mercy. It makes it harder to effectively draw empathy and urgency toward those who deserve basic humanity from institutions and the people who run them. That is a primary mechanism by which Stewart and Colbert hurt their purported causes, and that will be their defining legacy.