Hoping to laugh all the way to the ballot box, Colbert told followers in his native South Carolina to show their support by voting for Herman Cain. The project -- tongue planted firmly in cheek -- was called “Rock Me Like a Herman Cain!”
In the end, Colbert/Cain received only about 6,000 votes in South Carolina, or about 1%.
But Colbert -- one of 11 children, who never misses a chance to reference his Irish Catholic roots -- can rest easy.
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He is well on his way to making an impact of truly historic proportions.
And he is using that trusty Irish tool -- satire -- to do so.
Colbert has created a Super PAC (Political Action Committee) called Americans for a Better
Tomorrow, Tomorrow. And he has shown that for all of the time and effort put into creating intricate rules to regulate the influence of money in the political process, it is laughably easy to subvert those rules.
If you were yawning by the time you read the end of that sentence, this is understandable. The precise reason political financing rules are so easily subverted is because they are such a tiresomely boring topic.
But Colbert may finally succeed where so many others have failed -- by exposing this absurdity.
It should be noted that this is not Colbert’s first foray into the real world of politics.
In 2010, he went before Congress (as his right-wing character), and spoke out against illegal immigration. He said that his great-grandfather did not come from Ireland to see America "overrun by immigrants."
Indeed, Colbert has always been vocal about his Irish roots.
When he spoke to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as part of the Faces of America project (this time speaking as his humble self), he spoke at length about his ancestors from Tyrone and Roscommon, and how his great-grandfather came over on boat he knew as “the noble Dundee,” to work on the Erie Canal.
“Part of being Irish is hating the English in America,” Colbert added. “They probably got over it better over there than we did over here.”
Colbert’s latest satirical crusade takes aim at political fundraising. Money in politics is a topic people like to complain about, but which is also so murky that it’s difficult to blast the system in anything other than the most bland, generic terms.
For me personally, money in politics is not inherently evil. To believe money can be separated from politics is hopelessly naïve.
What is disturbing is that so many rules were set up to create the illusion of fairness, and that no one really talks about the obvious ways to subvert these rules.
Colbert is not only talking about it. He’s showing it.
As a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Colbert put it, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow…is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t ‘coordinate’ with them, whatever that means. Of such Super PAC efforts, Colbert said, ‘This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.’”
Super PACs these days play a huge role in elections. Perhaps you’ve noticed that almost every time you see a political attack ad, it is not paid for by the candidate but some group with a weird name.
Such as “Winning Our Future.” This is a Super PAC which supports Newt Gingrich, even though Gingrich is technically not allowed to be in contact with them. This even though Winning Our Future is run by a bunch of Gingrich pals.
Everyone’s got one of these PACs. Everyone knows the rules are a joke. And yet, they play a key role.
Colbert has since made his own pal Jon Stewart the head of his Super PAC. Colbert and Stewart simply can’t “coordinate.”
In case you miss the point, this illustrates just how farcical this all is.
Colbert is currently accomplishing what hordes of journalists and activists could not -- shedding light on a complicated yet vital topic.
He may not get many votes for president. But Colbert may well spur significant changes in the electoral process.
Somewhere, Irish satirist Jonathan Swift must be smiling.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan)
Here, watch the video of Stephen Colbert at the Herman Cain rally at the College of Charleston: