Jon Stewart’s Post-Partisan Critique of American Politics Is Stuck in 2004

Jon Stewart’s new political comedy Irresistible wants to be a scathing critique of the media, big money, and Beltway corruption. But as satire, it’s weighed down by the comic’s let’s-all-just-get-along politics.

Steve Carell and Rose Byrne in Jon Stewart's new political satire, Irresistible.

One of the defining moments of Jon Stewart’s career remains his famous 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Like many of my fellow millennials, I watched the clip dozens of times, and parts of it would linger in my memory for years; it had a far greater resonance than any of the televised debates from that year’s election season (all of which I forgot about in a matter of days).

Revisit the appearance in 2020, and it’s still easy to see why it had such an impact. Skewering hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as a pair of “hacks,” Stewart satisfyingly eviscerated the noxious partisan theater that so often masquerades as political debate on cable TV — correctly bemoaning a media culture that prizes empty adversarialism and histrionics over the genuine exchange of ideas. Pointed and funny, it was an example of what Stewart did best during his many years as host of The Daily Show: expose the political and media class with a hatred that often seemed genuinely pure.

Though I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, the famous Crossfire appearance was emblematic of another, somewhat less laudable streak running throughout Stewart’s career — one altogether closer to the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-alongism favored by the very same Beltway talking heads he has so long disdained. “Why do we have to fight?” was his opening salvo at the show and its two hosts, and Stewart would channel an identical reflex some six years later at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, convened to denounce a rancor it more or less contended was being imposed from above.

As Robin Marie Averbeck would later put it in a 2014 essay for Jacobin:

The festival reached its height as the spectators were treated to a video montage of fire-breathing pundits from all the major news networks denouncing their political opponents. The message was clear: Those who tell you there are fundamental differences between Americans that are worth getting emphatically angry about are lying to you. This divided America — an America that contains people with radically different values and radically different ideas of what a just, moral society looks like — does not exist. If it seems otherwise, it is simply because, as one sign at the rally put it, we fail to use our “inside voices.”

While his dislike for America’s political and media class is clearly genuine, there has always been a parallel streak in Stewart that earnestly sees political difference as artificial; partisan conflict being something more or less inflicted on ordinary Americans by a ratings-obsessed media and a political class that likes to stoke the culture war for its own sake.

He isn’t wrong, of course, to contend that both are hopelessly out of touch. Nor was he wrong to argue in 2004 that shows like Crossfire and Hardball (rest in power) do absolutely nothing to inform or foster meaningful debate. But if you could somehow strip away both the partisan white noise of cable news and the theatrical bickering that makes up most of America’s political debate, you’d still find a deeply unequal society riddled with division and conflict.

As Averbeck pointed out in 2014: “For all their shameless spectacle-making, the talking heads of the national news media do get one thing right: There are substantial, and fundamental, oppositions between Americans.”

The Chimera of Post-Partisanship

Just like his appearance on Crossfire, the comedian’s new film, Irresistible, casts a jaundiced eye toward the culture of the Beltway. Following high-rolling Democratic political consultant Gary Zimmer (played competently by Steve Carell) in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, its intended targets will be instantly familiar to anyone who has followed Stewart’s career: partisan hacks, cable news, and, perhaps most significantly, the influence of big money in politics.

As Zimmer, who we learn has served in the upper ranks of the Hillary Clinton campaign, convalesces following the Democratic Party’s defeat, he sees a YouTube video showing a retired marine colonel eloquently defending the rights of undocumented people at a city council meeting in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin (which has hemorrhaged citizens since the closure of a local military base).

Hack and opportunist that he is, Zimmer’s political instincts are instantly tickled, and he soon convinces a nameless committee of DNC hacks to dispatch him to flyover country and recruit the viral Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) to run in Deerlaken’s mayoral election. Zimmer’s aims are entirely cynical, his desire to help the Democrats reconnect with the Heartland mostly about optics and branding — rural Wisconsin being little more than a laboratory for the DNC’s consultant class to test-drive its messaging. Referring to Hastings, he gushes, “He looks like a conservative, he talks like a progressive!” — exactly the kind of pablum DNC hacks say in real life.

Most of the film’s humor is drawn from the latte-sipping Zimmer’s confusion in the face of rustic heartland authenticity. In Washington, he’s a high-flying consultant; in Deerlaken, he’s a fish out of water befuddled by Midwestern mores whose awkward attempts to interact with the locals only serve to showcase how little he understands about rural, small-town America.

This conceit, well intentioned though it is, feels exhausted after the first fifteen minutes; as a result, precious few of the gags pack the intended satirical punch. In one scene, for example, Zimmer is shocked to discover that his hotel lacks Wi-Fi; in another, he is thrown off when a local tells him to “have a good one”; in another, he awkwardly tries to blend in by ordering a hamburger and a Budweiser, then can’t seem to master twisting off the cap. The film seems so determined not to condescend to its salt-of-the-earth characters that it feels the need to beat us over the head with this caricature of Beltway elitism over and over again — making sure to let us know that its lead character enjoys caprese salads, listens to NPR, and rides around on a private jet.

It’s all well-meaning enough, but it’s about as subtle as your average SNL sketch taking aim at the big, orange Cheeto in Chief (and mostly just as unfunny).

The same might be said for many of the film’s gags taking aim at big money and the media, though a few of these do manage to land. In one cutaway, a single CNN panel hosts what looks like a dozen guests all talking at once; in another, an anchor can be heard saying “Coming up, we’ll be looking at this year’s hot races and how those will affect races four years from now.” The only major appearance of Stewart’s old nemesis, Fox News, on the other hand, feels like a joke from 2004 that’s been kept in cryostasis — an angry host declaring of Colonel Hastings throwing in his lot with the Democrats: “I know if I had served, I wouldn’t like it.” (There are many issues with military jingoism on the Right, but too few jar-headed right-wingers having served in uniform to make said jingoism legitimate is about as peak Kerry-era liberalism as you can get, and it already sucked in 2004.)

Zimmer’s mission is complicated by the sudden presence of an old rival and romantic interest (Faith Brewster, played by Rose Byrne) in Deerlaken at the head of a massive and well-funded RNC campaign to boost the incumbent Republican mayor. As the campaign comes down to the wire, he informs Hastings and his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) that despite the DNC’s money and resources — Zimmer takes Hastings to a big-money fundraiser in New York and secures him several super PACs — his candidacy must go negative in the final days if it intends to cross the finish line.

Here, the film finally appears to be settling on its decidedly unsubtle thesis: that a corrupt, bipartisan political establishment treats small-town America as a sideshow while its storefronts shutter and its jobs are exported abroad (though why Stewart chose the closure of Deerlaken’s army base to illustrate the Rust Belt experience is unclear, given that the military tends to be the sole institution in American life that has yet to experience austerity). On election day, we see the likes of antifa, Black Lives Matter, the coal and gun lobbies, and MAGA-heads gather outside the local polling stations, but Zimmer is confused when none of the town’s five thousand inhabitants seem to be voting. At day’s end, the race is tied at one vote apiece.

Then comes a bizarre twist: the whole election was a sham, seemingly instigated by every citizen of Deerlaken. Zimmer’s entire mission, in fact, was planned by Diana Hastings from day one in order to bring money into the local economy and pull one over on the clowns in DC. This has the rather strange implication that Colonel Hastings’s speech had been as fake as the election, a piece of scripted content denouncing a chauvinist bylaw that never existed. In a confusing series of epilogues dated six months later, it appears that Zimmer has returned to Washington and begun a relationship with his love interest and rival in the RNC, while Diana has been elected mayor of Deerlaken.

Just before the credits roll, the film’s apparent final message is summed up in the words “Money lived happily ever after, reveling in its outsized influence over American politics.”

If much of Irresistible’s satire is unsubtle, this tremendously convoluted ending only serves to undermine its intended message, leaving the confused viewer asking questions about exactly what it is that they’ve just seen. The would-be rubes have won, or so it would seem, but only insofar as they’ve successfully gamed the campaign finance industrial complex. More to the point, Deerlaken’s political divides are revealed to be entirely fake: something imposed from without by a political and media class too riven with partisanship and drunk from the poisoned chalice of the almighty dollar to care about average folk. There’s no local red/blue divide, no right-wing backlash against the undocumented, no cultural schism over access to abortion (we briefly see one portrayed, but the twist implies this is also fake).

This raises the further question of what we are to make of the aforementioned shots of lobbyists, Black Lives Matter activists, and others on the day of Deerlaken’s fake mayoral election. Are they local citizens in costume? A part of the national political cavalcade that has descended upon the town? There’s probably no straightforward answer. Either way, we are left with the impression of a civically and culturally harmonious community untainted by the machinations of Washington (all five thousand citizens, including the incumbent mayor, having been in on the ruse). In a film pitting rubes versus elites and trying its darndest to side with the former, it’s a startlingly reductive portrait of small-town America — and an example of exactly the kind of patronizing coastal stereotype Stewart’s film seems to want to militate against.

As he usually has, Jon Stewart in 2020 still displays good intentions and exhibits a laudable disdain for media bullshit, corruption, and the charlatanism of a bipartisan establishment that revels in them all. But if Irresistible is any indication, his vision has yet to extend itself beyond the chimera of post-partisanship that has always sat so uncomfortably alongside his well-founded scorn for the political and media elite.