Allow me to preface this by distancing myself from some of Bill Maher’s other, more controversial views, for they are in no way related to what I wish to say here. I would ask that those reading this do me the same courtesy.
Bill Maher, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries in his brand of political humor, is not afraid of controversy. The media has piled on him for his comments immediately following the September 11 attacks, his recent quarrels with actor Ben Affleck and scholar Reza Aslan over the global character of Islam that have sparked new anger among liberals and conservatives alike, and a handful of times in between. So when I first heard about Maher’s “Flip a District” idea, I can’t say I was surprised. But I also can’t say that there isn’t something admirable in what he’s doing for the state of Minnesota.
For as long as politics has existed, so has satire. Only in places like North Korea or the totalitarian regimes of the past have the two ever been separated, and not coincidentally so. Humor reaches people in a way that serious talking points or discussion can’t seem to mimic.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to laugh at the absurdity of things to really grasp how ridiculous they are. Satire, in its many and ever-evolving forms and methods, from Mark Twain to P. G. Wodehouse to Jon Stewart, fulfills that necessity in people. Is it a perfect way to reach people about issues as extensive and as troubling as those that pervade the world today? No. I don’t think any creditable satirist in the world today would say so either. So why then is Maher’s “Flip a District” campaign so worthy of praise? Because to realize how abysmal some of our politicians are, I think many Americans need a comedian to point out just how hilariously bad these government officials are.
I don’t think it warrants explanation to say that there is a profound problem in the way the American people perceive politics, nor to say that this country has its fair share of rotten politicians.
But surely there must be something deeply flawed about a country that can somehow maintain a congressional approval rating that hovers around 10% in conjunction with a 90% congressional reelection rate. Those frightening statistics are beginning to exist within the realm of ridiculousness on which political humor thrives, and perhaps only political humor can properly describe.
So when I see Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and others like these figures in pop culture make a mockery of politicians left and right, I think that that style, however unorthodox, is one of the best chances America has at realizing the fault in having elected such laughably miserable politicians to these offices which hold so much power.
Maher’s campaign, however, stands out to me as particularly commendable because at its core exists not only the serious, underlying subtext that makes satire so poignant, but a concerted desire to act on it. Say what you will about Bill Maher as a comedian or a political thinker, but no matter who leads the charge, the United States is in dire need of an effort to end the complacency and the laziness that are not unfair assessments of so many Americans’ relationship with their government and politicians.
Is Minnesota Representative John Kline, the Republican target of the “Flip a District” campaign, the root of the problem, or even a major player in it? Not at all, and Maher has been quite open about that fact. Has Kline, however, been pretty notably bad at his job? Yes. He’s voted against every forward-thinking piece of legislation that I could think of off the top of my head, even amid numerous outcries from his constituency, voting to defund climate change research, block same-sex marriage and, most infamously, increase student loans through market interest rates, much to the chagrin of his district’s hordes of debt-crippled graduates.
His very existence in politics embodies many of the problems that seem to just skulk their way back into Congress at every election, not because he’s one of the heavy-hitting crazies that make for hilarious soundbytes, but because he is the silent, behind-the-scenes politician who votes like those that are but sneaks by much of the criticism he deserves by keeping his head down and riding the party line.
Will John Kline win reelection in these coming days? That seems to be the way things look, unfortunately. But it isn’t Kline that really matters, in the grand scheme of things, nor is it Maher’s movement to unseat him, even.
What matters at the end of the day is that in this campaign, many Americans can perhaps discover that their dissatisfaction with those who are supposed to represent them, yet so often they represent the interests of corporations and lobbying firms that foot the bills of their reelection campaigns, is a political force of its own, and that it is not without an outlet with which to create real political change.
There is far too much popular disillusionment with the American Government as it operates today to continue to pretend that there isn’t something that is worth doing and can be done about it. For trying to show people that fact, for trying to dispel the idea that politics in today’s age of lobbying is out of our hands, this type of action should be applauded.
Sure, it may be easy to write Bill Maher off for some of the more outrageous things he’s said in his time. It may also be easy to call him a celebrity carpetbagger who is stepping too far out of his niche, and those are certainly reasonable concerns upon which to look at all this with due skepticism. Yet is a campaign to spread awareness of the people who represent us in Washington, regardless of who mans the helm, not laudable in principle at least?
Far too often have I seen people turn their heads away from “Flip a District” simply because, for separate reasons, they don’t want to be pooled in with Maher’s ilk. Such reluctance, when it ultimately leads to further disappointment and continued resentment of the government, can only be blamed on those who chose to regard the idea less than ad hominem attacks against the its progenitor. Bill Maher himself said, “This isn’t about me. It’s about how Americans have had crummy, corrupt representation for so long they’ve just accepted these people hanging around. Except you don’t have to. They’re your representatives, not your relatives.”
If I may be so bold as to entreat those reading this once more, I would ask that they, above all, recognize the necessity of efforts like this to promoting a healthy relationship between the American people and those that represent them more than just in name. In times as confusing and as divisive as these, perhaps the only way we’ll ever really see the change for which we criticize those we elect to public office, or write impassioned comments on social media, or tune in to the upcoming election campaigns, is to welcome the actions of those who take that extra step to implement it.
—Rhys Johnson ’18 is currently undeclared.