Commentary Magazine


John Oliver and the Sum of All Liberal Fears: Local Government

The saddest trend among left-liberal political “comedians” is not that they have become a source of actual news for leftists who find the real world a scary place–though the influence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and others is certainly disturbing. Far worse, however, is that instead of making those in power uncomfortable or seeking to overturn society’s taboos, they are merely working in the service of political correctness and the powerful federal government that seeks to regulate speech and, increasingly, thought. They are the opposite of subversive; they are court jesters.

I’ve written about this in the past, specifically with regard to the Giacomo of American politics, Stephen Colbert, who will be taking his palace service to David Letterman’s soon-to-be-former perch at CBS. It’s not that Colbert’s succession there will change anything material; the point is that it won’t. But Colbert’s talent and creativity is undeniable, to me at least, and I think that’s something of a saving grace among many conservatives who will still watch him entertain the king or queen. The same cannot be said for another Daily Show alumnus, John Oliver, who now has his own show making fun of the news (read: flattering the political leanings of his audience), mostly by yelling at the screen.

Despite that, Oliver has his fans on the left, who don’t seem to notice Oliver’s, shall we say, resplendent ignorance on some of the topics he covers. But in a recent episode, Oliver revealed just how frightening the idea of American participatory democracy is to the left.

The segment was on state legislatures, and how elections for those are crucial yet overshadowed by the congressional midterms. He opened the segment with about five minutes of clips of state and local legislators doing and saying absurd things, to lay the groundwork for the argument at the center of his show: the danger of self-rule of those who don’t think like Oliver. After showing the clips, Oliver said the following:

Look, state legislatures are hilarious. There’s only one problem: increasingly, they are the places where most legislation is actually taking place.

That is a pretty succinct sum of all liberal fears. The people are hilarious–as long as they have no power. Democrats tend to feel this way about Congress too, not just local governments. But Oliver and his ilk don’t fear Congress the same way. That’s because, he continued:

So far this session, Congress has passed just 185 laws. State legislatures have passed more than 24,000.

Just 185 laws? How many new laws should the United States Congress enact per session? In any event, Oliver goes on to castigate the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a favorite bogeyman for the conspiratorial fringe of the left, which connects issue-based NGOs and private-sector groups with legislators. The left has sought to demonize and blacklist such groups, the way they have with regard to much political speech and action.

Oliver’s conspiratorial authoritarianism is perfectly calibrated to the American left today, which helps explain his success. But liberals are also allowed to participate in local government, so what scares them so much about the building blocks of participatory democracy? Via Dave Weigel, we get the answer:

Remember the number: 69. That’s how many state legislative bodies Republicans are trying to win this year, out of 99, up from the 60 they control right now. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, composed entirely of senators, a bit like Rome but with fewer coups.) That would give them a “state legislature supermajority,” and allow them to push through the sort of policy reforms that will be quickly gummed up in a Washington that—let’s be honest—will spend six or seven months passing bills before everyone gets excited about 2016.

“We’re on offense this year,” says Jill Bader, a spokeswoman for the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. “We’re confident in the path not just to a supermajority, but in a more diverse group of elected Republicans.”

The RLSC groups this year’s elections in a couple of tiers. The first tier is composed of New Hampshire‘s House of Representatives, where Republicans lead the generic ballot and have been closing the gap in statewide races; Colorado‘s Senate, which was reduced to a one-seat Democratic majority by pro-gun 2013 recall campaigns against Democrats; Iowa‘s Senate, which Republicans can win with one more seat; Nevada‘s Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority in a year that turnout has been suffering; West Virginia‘s House, where an easy win for the GOP’s Senate candidate may elect the four Republicans needed for a swing; and New Mexico‘s house, where Republicans need three gains, and expect to benefit from a strong win for Gov. Susana Martinez.

Well that explains it. Republicans are having a good year, and are–unlike the Democratic Party–not pretending that the president is an elected king and thus the only office that truly matters. Of course, Democrats are pursuing congressional seats as well. But that’s to block Republicans’ ability to check President Obama’s power. When Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress in Obama’s first term, they used it to simply increase Obama’s power. Congress, for Democrats, is really about the presidency.

What about the local level? That’s where Americans can influence the way their communities are governed. Thus, the whole idea of local governance is terrifying. John Oliver has exposed a massive conspiracy at the heart of the American project: here, the people rule. And he can’t believe no one’s doing anything about it.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.