Stephen Colbert and his current SuperPac, The Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPac Americans For A Better Tomorrow Tomorrow, if I have its full name correctly listed, actually provides me a great illustration of the importance of historiography and a shorthand way to talk about the two major schools of thought in how US history is written. Historiography is, at its most basic, the study of how history is studied. It is a highly specialized topic, usually only taught to graduate history students, and is usually a course to be sweated through before you get on to other, more fun, topics. But in the case of Colbert and his SuperPac a rare chance presents itself to explain why it is important and how it shapes our collective story.
Colbert and his SuperPac have made waves, they have had an impact on the 2012 election, and it puts him and John Stewart well into a position to get a mention in future written histories. The impact Colbert is having on the 2012 election, and people’s perceptions of it, along with his talking about his SuperPac and SuperPacs as a concept, will certainly be analyzed by future historians. But how they will look at it, well that will really depend on the historical framework they were trained in. To put this in perspective take a look at two possible, but different, takes on what is happening a future historian might write:
Great Man Theory – In the 2012 Presidential election Stephen Colbert was able to take advantage of a major Supreme Court decision that modified the rules for political action committees so that they could take unlimited donations from corporate and other sponsors. Throughout the 2012 election Colbert lead the way in exposing, for humorous effect, both the oddities of the rules regarding political action committees as well using his own political funding to launch moderately effective political ads. Colbert was known for his satirical genius as well as his skill in presenting current events in a manner both humorous, and thought inducing, for his viewing audience. It was his vision of taking a dry political issue of the period, the political action committee and its impact on politics, and presenting it through mass media and humor as a ludicrous concept, that spearheaded broader political activism in a younger voting block in the 2012 election. Colbert not only lead the popular groundswell of disquiet at the impact political action committees’ wielded, he spearheaded the movement and ensured its widespread growth.
Social Forces Theory – The year 2012 is a pivotal year when analyzing early 21st century political movements in the United States, during this period due to a widespread economic contraction in the United States, along with the rest of the developed world, a polarization of the electorate was evident in the 2010 and 2012 elections. In particular, among left leaning younger voters, there was a widespread rejection of many traditional political loyalties and a growing cynicism towards new funding institutions in US politics, in particular the so-called “SuperPac” – a political action committee allowed to take large scale donations from corporate or other organized entities without needing to disclose information on the source of the donations. In 2012 a popular entertainer, known as Stephen Colbert, sensed a latent potential in the younger voting population for discontent over this particular change to the political scene and, using his late-night television show as a tool to raise awareness of this issue, created his own “Super Pac” and made a humorous mockery of the proceedings. Colbert’s show was influential in focusing this disorganized and broad discontent in the voting electorate towards a single issue, a focused cynical anger that was reflected in the voting results of the 2012 election (see table 1.6 comparing the elections of 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 against polling responses showing rising discontent with the actions of elected officials.) Colbert was able to carve for himself an unusual place in the electoral process of 2012 by riding a broad wave of young voter discontent.
Now, both takes on what is happening right now are, roughly, valid, and both could be proven using data from the period. What is key to understanding why this is important is to understand that history is not really about finding the right answer, or even necessarily the best answer, instead it is an attempt by someone with hindsight to try and make a larger story about what happened in the past, point out the most critical bits, and give the reader a sense of an order to what happened. As well history strives to prove a theory behind events, it tries to sift out a grand plan to the random chunky goodness of what actually happened.
You may ask why this is critical – a small example will show you – ask yourself this, what was the main cause of the US Civil War? If you answered slavery, congrats, the history you were taught was influenced by the late 19th century take on the US Civil War that treated it as a morality play. If you answered states rights, congrats, you were taught a historical take influenced by the early 20th century “Southern School” of thought, which discredited the idea of slavery as a key issue and pushed a broader political and legalistic take on what happened. If you answered economic forces, congrats, you were trained on histories written in the 1960s and 1970s. If you answered that there was no single main cause, congrats on last time, you were trained on post-modern historical theory which argues that there were many causes for events and weighing them distorts the true complex pull of history.