Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
I am 26 years and I have never voted. Census data from 2012 shows that I’m not alone. Only forty-five percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine year-olds actually did vote, and only thirty-eight percent of the younger twenty-somethings did. The highest voting demographic? Sixty-five plus at nearly seventy percent turnout.
My best guess is that all of those numbers drop dramatically when it comes to the party primaries, and they would drop even further if we had to pass a short quiz on candidates’ voting records on the debt ceiling, gun control legislation, or education reform. We’re an opinionated, free-thinking, and critical population—and yet we don’t vote.
Why? What is the missing element?
Aaron Sorkin, in his recent HBO show The Newsroom, says what’s missing today is a well-informed electorate. With the characteristic Sorkin mixture of irony, sappiness, and snappy dialogue, the show features a fictional news crew fighting to “reclaim the fourth estate” with responsible journalism.
They weigh news stories not by how entertaining they’re likely to be, but by asking if this is information that we the people need to know when it comes to voting. They dream big—hubristically big—about a new format for the Republican primary debate that asks tough questions and forces candidates to account for realities and facts behind their rhetoric.
I love it. I am inspired by it. And I’m educated by it (I now know the importance of Glass-Steagall.) It was a fictional dream of what the United States does not have: a news anchor and team dedicated to public service rather than partisan pedantry.
If you can hum the West Wing theme song in your head, you too probably either have been or would be inspired by this show, just a little. (Sidebar: you might have to ignore the Maggie—Jim—Don love-triangle because it hurts so much.)
The Newsroom was fiction. But then John Oliver began Last Week Tonight. It’s John Oliver, so it’s funny. It also feels like the natural progression of comedy-news genre shows like Colbert’s Colbert Report and Stewart’s Daily Show, but it makes a startling leap from entertainment to education in his longer segments. Sure, every week John Oliver focuses on hot topics like horny space geckos or Chechnyian teenage girls who cat-fished ISIS out of money.
But in the major segment of his show, Oliver focuses on issues of public importance, often ending with a humorous call-to-action to get his twenty-something audience involved with their local government. Some of his most enlightening segments: the politics of prison; the economic backlash of sports stadiums on cities; the United States’ crumbling infrastructure; and the abuse of foreign translators.
Call me crazy, but I see exactly the same trend on Colbert’s Late Show: education in the guise of entertainment. All aimed at us. In the first two weeks at the Late Show, Colbert interviewed eight top political and governmental figures: Jeb Bush, Joe Biden, Ban Ki-moon, Stephen Breyer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. He asks tough questions and twists his way behind the political rhetoric to the content within. You may have heard about Colbert’s audience booing Ted Cruz. If you watch the interview the best part isn’t that Colbert shuts the booing down with a plea for civility; the best part is that Cruz gave an intelligent answer about the growing power of the Supreme Court.
The men and women writing and producing these shows are the missing element. They are giving us what we are hungry for: an intelligent and civil discussion.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).