Jon Stewart Edges Democracy in the Polls


Political scientists Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University worry that the comedic stylings of Jon Stewart are hurting democracy. In a rigorously controlled experiment comparing watching Stewart's coverage of the 2004 presidential candidates (I've forgotten who they were, undoubtedly from watching too much Jon Stewart) with CBS's, they found young Stewart watchers

rated both candidates more negatively….Participants also expressed less trust in the electoral system and more cynical views of the news media, according to the researchers' article, in the latest issue of American Politics Research.

While this part of the chain of reasoning was not tested, they seem to believe this could lead to further diminution of already very low voter turnout among college students.

Me yakking about the lighter side of not voting back in 2004.

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  1. You didn’t vote, yet you’re still alive? I guess P. Diddy is not God after all.

  2. In France, students have traditionally lead political revolutions (or at least rioted in the streets).

    Here we can’t even get them to go to the polls.


  3. Voting is foolish. The chances of your deciding a race that you care about are zero, near enough to hit-by-meteor territory for all practical purposes. And if it’s that close, democracy prevails either way it’s decided. It’s a don’t-care decision, democracywise.

    If everybody thought that way, of course you should vote. But they don’t think that way, so there you are.

    On the other hand, lobbying others for your position makes perfect sense.

    Suppose you and X disagree. You both vote, and you cancel each other out.

    But if you persuade X, a single person, your way, and only he votes, it goes 1-0 your way.

    Multiply that by a few hundred people you work to persuade, and you’re a virtual king, voting-wise, and yet you never cast a vote yourself.

  4. CBS shows politicians in the light they wish to be seen. The Daily Shows them for the incompetent buffoons they actually are. How is this bad for democracy?

  5. Participants also expressed less trust in the electoral system and more cynical views of the news media…

    Then I think the show’s working, right?

  6. What madpad said. If memory serves (oh, and it does!) Stewart makes them look bad by using their own statements and actions, so what’s the problem?

  7. So, if it is the case that: Jon Stewart decreases the likelihood of young people, and young people tend to vote Democrat over Republican by a substantial margin, then Jon Stewart helps to elect Republicans in close races.

    Rove, you crafty bastard.

  8. Did they control for preexisting sarcastic temperament?

  9. Anything that lessens the amount of votes the Republicans and Democrats receive is surely a good thing.

  10. Yes, they did control for pre-existing sarcastic temperament (by random assignment).

    Nonetheless their conclusions are ass backward because they uncritically assume that it’s bad (rather than simply accurate) to have a negative view of politicians and the news media.

  11. Will someone please explain why viewing politicians negatively and being cycnical about the election process is a bad thing? Seriously?

  12. Jon Stewart does to democracy what Eastern Carolina University does for higher education.

    And I loves me some daily show.

    And I loves me some ECU halloween parties.

  13. I’m sick and goddamned tired of this whole “voting, regardless of the motives or the decisions, is a universal good” schtick. Fuck P-Ducky, fuck Rock the Vote, fuck these ECU turds. There is no reason why voting is a universal good—and these idiot studies and campaigns that simply assume so are useless piles of trash on the side of the road to freedom.

  14. number6, madpad, happyjuggler et al have it right on. Since when is being suspicious of political candidates a BAD thing?

  15. Let me some up the whole CBS poll for you:

    CBS: “Hey everybody, we’re still relevant. We swear! Just because the internet and cable are offering outlets for independant thought doesn’t mean we’re not a staple of democracy.”

    Common Sense Man: “But your ratings continue to drop and no one cares what you have to spin anymore.”

    CBS: “You’re ruining democracy! You hate freedom!”

  16. Jon Stewart, not the people running for or already occupying public office, gets blamed for weakening democracy?

    Talk about shooting the messenger.

  17. People being suspicious of politics isn’t a bad thing in general. However, from certain perspectives it might appear so.

    Kerry beat Bush by 54-44 among 18-29 yo in 2004, an election Bush outgained Kerry 51-48 in overall. That’s a demographic that swings considerably in the Dems favor. If it is largely just this youthful demographic that is becoming increasing suspicious (and therefore not voting), then it is a bad thing from the Dems perspective. It may also be a small bit bad for the republicans that they might have Jon Stewart to thank for some of their success in ’04.

  18. Young people voted in record numbers in 2004. That is, number of votes cast as per cpaita of population, not % of the total vote.

  19. this could lead to further diminution of already very low voter turnout among college students.

    And this is a bad thing…how?

  20. wow. I was way off. I thought Stewart was just some fairly funny dude that told jokes. Now I know that the fate of the entire free world rests squarely upon his shoulders.

    I will take my comedy far more serious now.

  21. I wonder how many college-age voters showed up in 2004 because of the moronic “Bush wants a draft!” meme people like Emeneim and other celebs kept blabbering on about.

    And TF, in a poll I can’t remember, a horrible percentage of young people listed The Daily Show as their *primary* source of news.

  22. [quote]I’m sick and goddamned tired of this whole “voting, regardless of the motives or the decisions, is a universal good” schtick[/quote]

    I second that. “Everyone should vote” sounds nice in theory and everyone spouts it because it’s the warm & fuzzy basis of democracy.

    Maybe we should be encouraging people NOT to vote. Get voter turnout as low as possible, and then maybe someone will come along and do something different [end random glimmer of idealism]

  23. Fatmouse, I’m sure there is a horrible percentage of old people that list CBS as thier *primary* source of news.

    I’m far more worried about CBS sending people to the polls by telling lies, than I am a comedian keeping people from the polls by telling jokes.

  24. I have mixed feelings on voter turnout. I’m not sad that college kids don’t vote. They’re self-absorbed idiots.

    However, when voter turnout is truly horrendous, like in local primaries, the result is maddening. The motivated fringe has a disproportionate impact on things like library bond elections, and state boards of education.

    Kansas is an example. Normal circumstances lead to creationists getting elected. Every few years the population notices and votes them out. But, the creationists come right back as soon as the majority stops paying attention.

  25. As it is impossible to achieve a nice preference-ordering using voting (any time there are more than two options), I can’t see how one can have anything but a lack of confidence in democracy. I mean, especially plurality voting. The primary presents enough choices where you’ll never get a good ordering, and even the November elections present more than the two-party option which is important because plurality voting doesn’t even come close to meeting IIA. At very least we could use some combination of Condorcet voting and Instant Run-off, that would lessen the problem as much as possible.

    I guess ballot measures (because the choice is a binary yes/no) are an exception to this, so I have confidence in the ability of democracy to achieve an outcome that expresses a decent preference on ballot measures. Huzzah. Woo. I’ll be sending these poli-sci types the collected works of Kenneth Arrow for Christmas.

  26. Timothy-

    Wow, another election methods geek!

    Google for “strong FBC” some time. Then you’ll know what I’m working on as a hobby.

  27. CBS shows politicians in the light they wish to be seen. The Daily Shows them for the incompetent buffoons they actually are.

    That’s only until they show up on “the couch.”

    Then it’s all Jon can do to not discretely rub one out while talking to them. Fawning becomes high art, even above “Actor’s Studio” levels.

  28. thoreau: Who isn’t an election methods geek? That’s an interesting hobby, how did you come by it?

  29. Will someone please explain why viewing politicians negatively and being cycnical about the election process is a bad thing? Seriously?

    To a certain extent, it’s useful. Politicians are human and therefore you should not put perfect trust in them, but rather view them as generally selfish beings.


    Let’s consider for a second that you’re president (or Prime Minister, Chancellor, etc. — this isn’t directed at any real person) and you think, you know, this whole eight years thing sucks, and what the hell is with seperation of power? I should become dictator and everyone will just have to do whatever I say.

    Now, how would you do this? You could do it with overwhelming military force, but that’s hard to muster and results in a somewhat unstable dictatorship. What yo really want is to convince people they need a dictator.

    How do you do that?

    Convince them that the legislative body is ineffectual, full of buffoons who are just doing favors for lobbyists an putting pork into bills. “How do we get away from this?” the people ask.

    And you reply: by having one good, strong father figure to make the decisions for us. He will lead us in the right direction, because he doesn’t have to worry himself with silly little things like poll numbers and elections.

    And no matter how cynical people become, they really do want a daddy who can make the tough decisions for you.

    And that’s how you become a dictator.

    Add in some magic power and badly written romance, and you have the plot of the new Star Wars movies, too 🙂

  30. Yeah, Steart is spot-on about mocking the foibles of modern-American democracy, it really is a place for vipers, rogues, and vermin of every sort.

    My problem is how Stewart struts around as if he’s trying to “save democracy” or “encourage political participation” or some other bs he can keep himself happy with.
    (sigh) Goverment is a very corrupting thing.
    Best thing to do is to limit as many of the important functions of government to the local level where accountability provided by the lcoal community who knows that politician and can then judge as to whether their compromises are just/acceptable…
    Unfortunatley, Stewart thinks he can save the National government when he is already uncovering the courrpt foundations and then adds the corrosive effects of cynicism.

  31. Timothy-

    It started when I became interested in third parties. I quickly realized that plurality voting is defective. At first I looked at election methods just as tools that you analyze and see which one you like.

    Then, in November of 2000, the theoretical physicists invited Donald Saari to talk at my university, and I realized that there’s more to it than just a collection of methods that you treat as toys, that there are in fact general statements that one can make. So I started playing around more, and reading up on election methods. I read the book by Brams and Fishburn, and some stuff by Saari.

    In fall of 2001 I joined the Election Methods Mailing List, and learned of the FBC criterion from I started thinking about it, and set myself the task of proving that it can never be satisfied by ranked methods (as opposed to rated methods, like Approval Voting). I thought about the problem off and on, had a few false starts where I thought that I’d solved the problem, and recently I finally proved that it can’t be satisfied in 3-candidate elections. I’m writing a paper now with the proof. This time I’m sure it’s right.

    Of course, hard core mathematicians will probably be unimpressed because of the restrictions that I had to impose to make the proof feasible. Once it is written and has passed peer review (which could take a while, since I suspect the paper will go through a lot of revisions), I’ll post it on grylliade, or include a link to the journal.

  32. Oh, was taken down, last I heard. The site was a collaboration between two guys at opposite ends of the spectrum, both of them adhering to beliefs that might be considered, um, non-traditional (even by other people on their respective ends of the spectrum). For a while they put aside their differences to collaborate on developing content related to election methods. But eventually a dispute broke out where each guy insisted that the other one was a complete nut. Each of them will tell you that it’s because the other guy believes some absolutely crazy stuff that makes him unfit for polite company, and so it is impossible for them to work together in good conscience.

  33. Sorry- I can’t get too excited about tinkering with the procedural efficiency of a choice between two indistinguishably corrupt and incompetent alternatives.

  34. Doherty,
    Read what thoreau just said, and you’ll have one more good reason for not voting.

  35. Then it’s all Jon can do to not discretely rub one out while talking to them. Fawning becomes high art, even above “Actor’s Studio” levels.

    I think there’s a big difference between lampooning the lunacy of politicians in a scripted “faux news” segment, and then having manners in an interview that lasts less than 10 minutes.

    I would not describe Stewart as “fawning” as he usually gets in some good questions in with people you know he disagrees with.

    He’s also been quite open about his distaste for the bickering back-and-forth of others shows (remember Tucker Carlson?).

    I watched Sean Hannity and Whoopie Goldberg last night. I was impressed by both. Respect and manners were in abundance and it was still playful and interesting. I would put that in the same league as a Jon Stewart interview and I would hardly call either of them “fawning.”

  36. I would not describe Stewart as “fawning” as he usually gets in some good questions in with people you know he disagrees with.

    Um, that’s the whole complaint. He fawns over Kerry and McCain, while refusing to let Ponnuru get a word in.

    I liked him better when he was interviewing Spice Girls.


    Does your analysis take into account the illogical behavior of the voters themselves? While preferential ballots/instant runoffs are mathematically appealing, I seem to recall papers from the ’90s (’80s?) that showed people just can’t follow instructions. Voters try to game the system, and they don’t actually rank the candidates in the order they prefer.

  37. bubba-

    First, my analysis only looks at what sorts of incentives the system gives the voters, not at how accurately they vote with the preferential ballots.

    However, my analysis does show that the system with the fewest perverse incentives is actually Approval Voting. No preferential ballots. Just vote for any and all candidates that you approve of, and don’t vote for any that you disapprove of. You can support more than one in this system if you want to. So if you’re concerned about the fact that my analysis didn’t allow for voter confusion, then be assured that my result actually would recommend a system that helps minimize voter confusion.

    Now, some people hear that and say “Cool! I always liked Approval Voting, and your analysis just reaffirms that it’s a good system!” Others hear it and say “Well, that system sucks, so if your result says that Approval is the least strategy-prone then what it really proves is that strategy shouldn’t be an important consideration when picking a system.”

    I’m a fan of Approval myself, but I don’t want to falsely attribute great significance to my result. My result is mathematically correct, but whether or not it has any social/political implications depends on what you want from a voting system. If you think that Approval Voting is teh suck then my result is simply a way of showing that people who worry too much about strategy are painting themselves into a corner. If you think Approval Voting pwns the alternatives then my result is simply a vindication of what you already think.

    As long as we’re talking about Approval Voting, I should mention that some people get really freaked out by the notion of voting for more than one (is it fair? Why should you get more than one vote?) but that isn’t the only way to analyze it. You could also frame Approval as “Vote yes or no for each candidate, most yes votes wins.” Then some people seem less bothered by it. Your mileage may vary.

  38. Re-reading your comment, bubba, I’m not sure I follow. Sometimes people report insincere rankings in order to game the system, and if they know how it works and they have a decent idea of how others are voting then they can be quite successful. Other times people think they’re gaming the system but are in fact shooting themselves in the foot.

    Approval Voting, being less complicated, is less prone to that. Not completely immune, but certainly less prone.

    People who like Approval are impressed by that fact. People who don’t like Approval just argue that this concern really isn’t all that significant. Your mileage may vary.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that I’ve got a result that’s true. Whether or not it’s significant is a whole other ball of wax.

  39. I’m not so familiar with Approval Voting, I think I just don’t reacall that from public econ. I personally like Borda voting, but it’s really no better on IIA than plurality voting is, although it does satisfy more of the Impossibility Theorem. I think Condorcet voting has a lot of potential, but there’s that whole thing about not guaranteeing a winner with more than three candidates that presents some issues. That’s a solvable problem, however, with some fancier methodology.

    I particularly disfavor Duncan Black’s domain restriction solution. That’s like ignoring prime numbers because dividing them is annoying: it ignores a good bit of the problem because it’s hard. It also leads to the conclusion that majority rule is always the best answer which, clearly, it really isn’t. Then there’s that whole Pareto paradox to deal with, and both fundamental theorems of welfare economics go off the rails…THANKS Amartya! Thanks a bundle…

  40. Timothy-

    I don’t know anything about Black’s “domain restriction” proposal. The only thing I know about Duncan Black is that he proved that there is always a Condorcet Candidate when you have a 1D ideological spectrum. Sen’s theorem is just a vague thing on the edge of my consciousness. What are the fundamental theorems of welfare economics and the Pareto paradox?

    Condorcet is great as long as it works. As soon as you hit a cycle, however, you need a backup method. Good luck getting Condorcet advocates to even agree on a method. If you ever do get them to agree on a method, good luck explaining it to people who couldn’t punch a chad.

    Borda: Strategy gets all messed up with too many candidates. Say my sincere preference is Libertarian > Democrat > Republican > a bunch of other third parties. If the Dem and Republican are the front-runners, my optimum strategy is to put the Republican in last place, behind a bunch of freaky third parties. But if too many people do the same, then we could wake up to discover that the Natural Law Party won, only nobody is entirely sure what they stand for.

    Approval Voting: Utter simplicity. Vote yes or no on each candidate, most yes votes win. Equivalently, vote for as many candidates as you like. (The yes/no formulation is ever so slightly more intricate, but the notion of voting for more than one candidate just seems wrong to some people. They think that somebody is cheating.) Strategically, it’s simple: Vote for your favorite, your favorite among the front-runners (front-runners determined by polling data), and whoever you prefer to that front-runner. The outcome can’t be predicted from ranking data, but there are good arguments to suggest that it will do a decent job of finding Condorcet candidates.

    Basically, it’s cheap to do with current equipment (unlike anything with ranked ballots), it’s easy for voters to defend their interests (i.e. optimum strategy is easy to figure out, unlike many ranked methods), and it leaves room for more than 2 candidates to compete (unlike plurality voting).

    What’s not to love?

  41. Go to if you want to support Jon and tell the Post what a threat to democracy really looks like.

  42. I just can’t resist the cheap shot.

    “Jon, you’re ….huurrrrrrting America.”

  43. The potential for insincere voting in any one election (primary or general) is often small compared to the potential for insincere voting when voters have a choice of simultaneous primary elections to vote in. But a lot of potential voters are bugged to find out a primary has been closed to them.

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