Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Colbert in Charleston: Passion or Hype?

James Hinchey Photography

By Elizabeth Hair
The atmosphere was festive and unseasonably warm on the afternoon of Friday, January 20.  The College of Charleston campus was abuzz and the scene downtown resembled a concert at a block party.   The crowd was full of college students (many skipping class), alumni, working professionals, and tourists who came from all over the state to be a part of the “Rock Me Like a Herman Cain: South Cain-olina Primary Rally." 
Groups of people stood in something resembling lines, wrapping and weaving their way through downtown Charleston for several city blocks around the Cistern.  People chanted “USA, USA, USA” and waved signs. Some of these signs were politically relevant (Vote for Cain) while most were satirical (Watch out for the Man behind the curtain) or ridiculous (I thought there’d be pizza).
Interestingly, this was billed as a political event.  Charleston’s own Stephen Colbert was visiting as part of the rally scheduled the day before the South Carolina Republican primary.  The event attracted as many as 5,000 spectators, despite less than 36 hours notice.  In comparison, GOP candidate Ron Paul visited the College of Charleston just two days prior, attracting only around 800 attendees.  This contrast in attendance made me wonder whether this sudden rise in political participation was out of an interest in politics or was it just a gathering of those seeking the chance to shake the hand of a Comedy Central star?
James Hinchey Photography
The thousands of spectators at the rally were entertained by a pep-band playing modern hits while the crowd waited.   The event kicked off with a full marching band performing LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” while cheerleaders danced and pumped up the crowd.  However, judging by the crowd’s reaction as Colbert took the stage, very little introduction was needed for the hometown favorite. 
The purpose of the rally was, in part, to draw attention to the controversial new presence of super-PACs, the multi-million dollar political action committees that raise money from undisclosed donors.  Colbert, along with fellow comedian John Stewart, had been criticizing the Super PACs through the “Making a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow” committee.  As of publication Colbert’s PAC had raised over 1 million dollars. 
James Hinchey Photography
There was initial excitement among many in the crowd that perhaps an event like this would motivate more voters to participate in the electoral process.  One older College of Charleston student  standing in line in front of me said that his faith in American politics was being restored.  But perhaps he was simply caught up in the wave of optimism and excitement that was sweeping through the crowd.  It seems a bit over the top to think that one political event starring the host of a Comedy Central program would be the tipping point in the battle to encourage higher voter turnout. 
Yet, even Colbert and Cain seemed to focus on motivating the crowd and encouraging voter participation.  After a brief introduction by Colbert of the man he had “only believed in for several days” Cain took the stage donning a humorously large cowboy hat as the C of C Pep Band played Parliament’s “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker.”   Cain accepted the unconventional endorsement of Colbert and then proceeded to promote a, “revolution about brains and ballots” that, he shouted, “starts with you and every other college campus.”    Cain’s speech, while mixed with Pokèmon references and interrupted by the crowd chanting, “Occupy Herman Cain,”constantly returned to the former presidential candidate’s  focus on encouraging the crowd to “stay informed, stay involved, and stay inspired”. One of his final remarks was to tell the crowd not to vote for Herman Cain because “every vote matters and you still matter.”
James Hinchey Photography
Colbert then returned to the stage to entertain.  He focused some on the changes in Washington that he felt would affect the voters, especially on the recent ruling that corporations are people.  To this he responded, “Corporations are people, and I’m a people person”. While he continued his stance that the “entire campaign finance system is a joke” he, like Cain, encouraged the crowd to vote.  Colbert closed by telling the audience to “Vote for who Herman told you or who I told you: just vote!”
After the crowd had thinned considerably, and most of the students had climbed down from the trees, window sills, and iron pronged fences that lined the cistern courtyard, I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the attendees.  Given the enthusiasm that had been expressed prior to the rally by several bystanders and during the rally by the speakers, I was interested in finding out what had drawn people to the event.  Perhaps they, too, shared in the restored optimism of the man who had stood in line in front of me.  I talked with students, alumni, tourists, and even a campus minister.  When asked why they came to the rally, all of the people I spoke with answered, “to see Colbert”.  Not one of the people I interviewed even came close to mentioning politics. 
The moods and motivations of those interviewed conflicted with the earlier expressions of political optimism I felt while standing in line.  In the previous presidential election year voters 18 to 24 were the only age group to show any increase in voter turnout.  And, yet, according to the United States census bureau, still less than half of 18 to 24-year-olds voted. 
I experienced the thrill of rising optimism concerning political participation at the beginning of the event followed by the disappointment of learning that in the end what had attracted most of the 5000 viewers was a television star.  I began to wonder:  can political passion ever hold a candle to Hollywood hype?   In 2008 President Obama’s campaign was endorsed by megastars such as Oprah, Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Bob Dylan.  Did the influence of the stars encourage voter participation or was a vote for Obama in the end just a vote for a favorite star?  Can comedians like Stephen Colbert positively affect elections or will we once again hear the gripe by the water cooler that more people vote for their American Idol than their American President?   These are questions that I think will be important as we move toward this year’s big election. 


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