Rally to Restore Sanity: A Student’s Perspective

Originally posted: December 1, 2010

His name was Russell and he was handing out cards that read, “STOP: Deport All Illegal Aliens Now!  No Amnesty!  No guest Workers!  E-Verify!”  Russell wasn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, given the Daily Show audience’s reputation as a crowd of sarcastic college students.  I spotted Russell amidst a sea of other political sign-wavers at the fringes of the rally on October 30.  Half a block down was the “legalize pot” contingency, just across from MoveOn.org’s satirical “join Republicorp” banners.

I had arrived in Washington, DC, that morning on a bus with 50 other Sarah Lawrence students. The trip was organized by politics faculty member Sam Abrams; back at SLC, students watched the rally at a live screening sponsored by the Sarah Lawrence Activities Council.  I was excited because, true to my liberal-college-student demographic, I love Jon Stewart.  Plus I was curious to see what a concerted,  moneyed effort to promote rational political discussion could realistically do for America.  Call me idealistic, but I was hoping that it could stimulate a new age of reasonable discourse.

I was no newcomer to political gatherings—I’d been to anti-war vigils, Middle Eastern protests, campaign rallies, local political meet-and-greets, you name it.  But Jon Stewart was doing something different.  The rally aimed to be simultaneously patriotic and critically reflective, soberly apolitical and puckishly belittling of campaign-side mudslinging.  I was hoping Stewart could pull it all off.

My friends and I got past Russell and tried to maneuver towards the stage where Stewart and Colbert were prancing in stars-and-stripes outfits.  No luck: long before the official 12:00 start time, the crowds had engulfed the event space, and “late” arrivals such as ourselves were doomed to circling around the rally, perpetually just out of earshot and sight of the event.

As we waded deeper into the crowd, the number of directly political signs decreased.  Instead, they became increasingly individual-spirited and diverse.  Amongst the teen contingent, riffs on internet memes abounded: “Consequences will never be the same”; “Hide your kids!  Hide your wife!”  Colbert constituents: “We scare because we care”; “Kids may be Nazis,” Stewart loyalists: “My rent is pretty reasonable”;  “Hyperbole is literally destroying America.” Out-of-the-blue deadpan humor: “Has anyone seen my car?” “Homosexuals are gay!” “Am I too late for the Glenn Beck rally?”

The diversity in the signs reflected the diversity of the crowd.  There were grannies for sanity and toddlers for fear.  There were business types, hippies, soccer moms, high school students, artists, and everyone in between.  I struggled to find conservatives—there was tangible anti-Tea Party sentiment in the sea of statements, although I did find a huddle of people under a sign reading “Restore sanity!  Vote Democrats out!”

I began interviewing people in the back reaches of the crowd, those who couldn’t even see the stage and could hear only the high notes of the songs Stewart sang.  They all agreed that they loved the variety of the people who came out and enjoyed the day together.

For me, the rally represented the best of American public engagement—optimism, heterogeneity, celebration.  In a way, Russell was the perfect introduction to the Rally to Restore Sanity experience, because he forced me to let go of my assumptions about the crowd.

I don’t know if the Rally to Restore Sanity stimulated a new age of reasonable discourse in America.  I don’t know if it prompted its attendees to vote or engage their civic duties in ways they hadn’t before.  What I do know is, the 215,000 people who came out on October 30 got a chance to see a crowd of their fellow Americans for what they were: proud, hopeful, and impressively diverse.

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