I think Bill Scher did a really excellent job of skewering Bill Maher in his latest piece for the Washington Monthly, but he didn’t convince me that I should ignore Maher’s argument. And that really makes me wonder whether the effort was worthwhile.
For decades now, Maher was been making politically incorrect jokes because that’s his schtick. From 1993 to 2002, he actually hosted a show called Politically Incorrect, first on the Comedy Channel and then on the ABC network. Along the way, he’s mixed in social and political commentary, especially on his pet projects (e.g., pot legalization, the ethical treatment of animals, climate change) and pet peeves (e.g., religion, boycotts of Israel, 9/11 conspiracy theories). He has whatever influence comes with having a good-sized audience, but as a vote-mover he is inconsequential.
At the moment, Maher is on the warpath against “wokeism” and “cancel culture,” which is to be expected from someone who is the poster boy for opposing political correctness. But his main concern is that the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot by policing thought and speech, and this is handing power to the Republicans. At no point does Scher demonstrate why Maher is wrong about this.
It’s true that Maher is hardly a credible voice on how to avoid alienating middle American voters. His notorious hostility to religion makes that clear, and Scher finds other examples of Maher’s coastal snobbery to bolster the point. But a comedian and social commentator doesn’t have to be win elections. They don’t have to be consistent or follow the advice they offer to others. All that matters is that they entertain and have a point.
Scher does an admirable job of tearing apart some of Maher’s specific examples of “wokeism” by noting that they’re exaggerated or highly misleading. But Maher isn’t handing in a term paper or testifying under oath. It’s true that his point would be stronger if he was careful to have his footnotes properly documented, but I don’t see why this matters much at all.
Scher thinks it’s highly significant that Maher mischaracterized Illinois Democrats’ treatment of Abraham Lincoln:
During his turn on Cuomo Prime Time, Maher said, “When you’re doing something that sounds like a headline in The Onion, that’s when you’ve gone too far, you know? Land of Lincoln cancels Lincoln. That really happened. They tore down Lincoln’s—Lincoln isn’t good enough for them. Seattle, the city council voted to decriminalize crime. This is an Onion headline. I saw one, very recently, maybe babies should vote. It’s what I mean about the ‘Party of No Common Sense.’”
Every one of these examples is misinformation.
Nothing of Lincoln has been torn down in Illinois, though a statue of Lincoln’s bête noir Stephen Douglas has been removed from the statehouse grounds. Maher is probably referring to last year’s creation by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot of an advisory committee to review 41 monuments and murals, including five Lincoln statues. But the committee has not yet made any recommendations, and inclusion on the list, according to the committee, is “not a condemnation of these monuments, but … an opportunity to learn from them.” Lightfoot has said, in response to criticism of Lincoln’s presence on the review list, “Let’s be clear, we’re in the Land of Lincoln, and that’s not going to change.”
As Scher further details, Seattle did not decriminalize crime and it was an employee of a right-wing think tank that suggested there should be no age requirement for voting. But you know what did just happen? The New York City Council removed a statue of Thomas Jefferson from their City Hall chamber. The author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State, second vice-president, and third president of the United States is now unworthy of reverence.
To be clear, the argument here is not over whether Jefferson’s abhorrent personal behavior warrants his cancelation. There are many ongoing cancellations that have merit, and if someone wants to make the case Jefferson belongs on the list, they can make it. The argument, made by Maher, is that these kinds of decisions are hurting the Democrats politically by creating a cultural chasm with the largest bloc of American voters. The accuracy of this analysis does not depend on choosing the right examples to make the point.
Now, there is one thing that Scher wrote that I think is worth sharing.
In his diatribe on November 19, to prove his point that Democrats don’t seem to care about noncollege whites, Maher said, “You can find ways to stand up for these folks without being David Duke. This month, when the Democrats finally passed their big trillion-dollar bill to rebuild our roads and bridges, six Democrats voted no because it didn’t go far enough to address climate change … This was free money from the federal government that would actually improve their constituents’ lives.”
But Maher’s example makes the opposite point. Only six Democrats voted no, while 215 House Democrats and 50 Senate Democrats voted yes. Let’s ask the question again: Why is the party that supports so many issues that benefit the middle class still considered out of touch by 62 percent of Americans? Maybe because people with big media platforms act like the votes of six congressional Democrats define the party more than the other 265.
Even though Maher is very concerned about climate change, he thought it was stupid to vote against the infrastructure bill because it didn’t do more to address the issue. But he made it sound like the party as a whole was responsible for the votes of a tiny fraction of their caucus. That’s the kind of take we expect from a political opponent. Take the outliers on the other side and hang them around the necks of the rest.
If you want to advise the Democrats on how to do a better job winning elections, you don’t want to be launching Republican talking points at your audience. It’s makes the Democrats less likely to listen, and it also makes their job just a little bit harder.
But no one said Bill Maher was a political genius. He doesn’t have to be a genius to be right that the Republicans are making huge gains off of cancel culture. We can discredit the messenger, but that won’t make it more popular to attack our Founding Fathers or call Jefferson “a slaveholding pedophile who should not be honored with a statue.”