Demockracy: How Laughter is Democracy’s Best Medicine

Inside McClennen and Maisel’s book, Is Satire Saving Our Nation, is the simple dedication, “To Russia, with love” [1].Without needing any other context, most readers can see the humor in the phrase: a book about humor dedicated to a nation known for its intolerance of that very thing. Satire is often recognized as a sign of a healthy, blossoming democracy, but is it? In my latest web article, “Gerald’s Great Fall: Satire and Presidential Approachability,” I focused on how presidents can use satire as a diplomatic tool to help their image. But the importance of satire goes beyond just heads of state. Comedy can be a tool to promote social change and act as a watchdog on the government, yet it often has unforeseen consequences. Political cartoons are one example of this kind of humor, often stoking the flames of protest and keeping the great heads of state from having overly-inflated opinions of themselves.

The Many Manifestations of Political Satire 

Some Western countries have a long history of increasingly important public political satire. One example is the United States, where memes reign supreme and late night comedy is some people’s main source of news. There are other countries, however, where comedy is just beginning to blossom. These so-called “middle ground” countries are places where “freedom of expression is constrained enough to outrage people but where political repression is not so severe as to crush people’s ability to communicate relatively freely” [2]. Inspired by the likes of the U.S.’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Nkechi Nwabudike and four others decided to start a spinoff to confront the Nigeria’s sociopolitical shortcomings [3]. The show is the first prime time political satire show in the country, and it’s relatively successful. It faces difficulties in a nation with over 100 different ethnic groups, but manages to satirise the happenings of a notoriously corrupt nation without being shut down.

The Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests across the Islamic world in the 2010s, was rife with political cartoons roasting their respective regimes. Some cartoonists claim they even helped “spark the Arab Spring” [4]. Though the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring were since shattered by harsh authoritarianism across the region, satire was undeniably a part of those hopes.

The Firing of Cartoonists and Other Tragedies

Even if comedians can legally express themselves in most countries, this does not mean it is easy to do so. Freedom House has marked that free speech has decreased globally in the past decade, with relevant consequences for journalists and comedians alike [5]. Although the changing media landscape might be partially to blame, the dwindling number of political cartoonists around the world might fit comfortably in your grandmother’s living room. Some of America’s top cartoonists, Rob Rodgers and Nick Anderson, along with Canadian Michael de Adder, were fired for being too critical of Trump in their drawings. “Political cartoons were born with democracy and they are challenged when freedom is” [6]. If satirists are not allowed to speak truth to power then who can?

France, a nation with a longstanding history of aristocratic mockery, has led to satire of international renown. Charlie Hebdo, France’s leading satire magazine, pushed the envelope, leaving no politician, religion, or social issue untouched. On January 7, 2015, two brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, killing twelve people and injuring eleven. Public outcry ensued, and people around the world wore stickers, changed their Facebook profile pictures, and stood in solidarity with those who lost their lives to “the most extreme form of censorship: murder” [7]. Swiss cartoonist Patrick Chappatte said it best: “However one felt about those particular cartoons, we all sensed that something fundamental was at stake, that citizens of free societies — actually, citizens of any society — need humor as much as the air we breathe.” It was more than just a terrorist attack on a magazine that two terrorists did not like, it was an attack on freedom of speech. This is why leaders of the not-so-free world “cannot stand humor” [8]. 

 How Satire Defends and Fosters Democracy

Benjamin Franklin, remembered as a great inventor and Founding Father, was also a biting satirist. Pundits who study American satire have drawn connections between Franklin and Mark Twain with the likes of Stephen Colbert and John Stewart [9]. Though their humor is often provocative, Colbert and Stewart are doing their part to speak truth to power. When afraid, both the left and the right, the powerful and the downtrodden, are tempted to stifle humor. Though protecting the rights of satirists in any political atmosphere is protecting the rights of freedom, even reputable news sources will shirk, instead choosing to comment on the fabricated truths of politicians rather than analyze and search for truth. The events of 9/11, for example, were anything but laughable. And while the “conditions in the nation after 9/11 severly limited public access to the truth and frustrated public debate of major social issues,” the need for journalists and satirists to question and analyze was as strong as ever. With a growing “gag on free speech” across the world, the need for political satire is greater than ever. Laughter might not be the end-all cure to authoritarianism, but it sure is a start. 

[1] McClennen, Sophia A. and Remy M. Maisel. 2014. Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

[2] https://www.economist.com/international/2013/08/31/the-satirical-verses

[3]https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/22/using-comedy-to-strengthen-nigerias-democracy

[4] https://www.economist.com/international/2013/08/30/laugh-them-out-of-power

[5] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-media/freedom-media-2019

[6, 7, 8] https://www.ted.com/talks/patrick_chappatte_a_free_world_needs_satire/[9] McClennen, Sophia A. and Remy M. Maisel. 2014. Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

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Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

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