Tracking Political Participation Among The Colbert Report Audiences

Stephen Colbert

Since the mid-90’s, proponents of the Internet have championed the new technology as a reviver of democracy, a way for individual voices to be heard in a political landscape where politicians increasingly favor their own interests over of the people they are elected to represent.   In 2001, Pierre Lévy wrote, in Cyberculture,

True electronic democracy consists in using the possibilities for interactive and collective communication offered by cyberspace to encourage the expression and elaboration of urban problems by local citizens themselves, the self-organization of local communities, the participation and deliberation by those directly affected by them, the transparency of public policies and their evaluation by citizens.

The idea of new technology affecting a change in the way Americans see and “do” democracy has also been applied to a broader range of technologies such as fax machines, call-in talk radio shows, and cable television (Jones 40-48).  15 years after its introduction into mainstream culture, has the Internet – or these other new technologies – really had a profound impact on the level of political participation engaged in by average citizens?  Specifically, I would like to focus on whether the political late night talk shows, or “New Political Television” (NPT) as coined by Jeffrey Jones, is actually causing its audience to become more politically active, and if so, how and to what degree.  By surveying a sample of The Colbert Report audiences, I have tried to determine whether satirical political comedy is providing audiences with tools or incentive to act politically, or whether these shows are seen simply as entertainment with little or no resulting political action.  While merely thinking more about politics can be seen as a positive result of these types of shows, it is only through the political participation of informed and engaged citizens that a healthy democracy can be restored.

In “Reconfiguring Civic Culture in the New Media Milieu,” Peter Dahlgren examines the charge that media are major contributors to the cynicism and stagnancy that seem to characterize contemporary American democracy.  He notes, however, that many critics of mass media are more optimistic when discussing the Internet and digital media, suggesting that they see these technologies as having the capacity to jump-start political participation and breathe life back into democracy (151-152).   Dahlgren proposes the idea that “civic culture” – a process consisting of a series of cultural practices whereby people become citizens – is a prerequisite to democratic participation, and absolutely essential to the survival of democracy itself (152-153).   These attitudes, practices, and conditions that comprise civic culture, he says, are not “political” themselves, rather they exist at the level of everyday experience.  They can, however, lead to political action, and should be thought of as preconditions for democratic participation.   He models civic culture as “a dynamic circuit” to which he assigns six discrete dimensions: values, affinity, knowledge, practices, identity, and discussion – each providing an important condition for the health of democracy (156).   For the purposes of this study, I’d like to focus on the modalities of knowledge and discussion, as these are the two with the most relevant application to the examination of the relationship between NPT and political action.  Knowledge, Dahlgren says, is indispensible to a healthy democracy, as it provides citizens with skills to communicate effectively.  He claims that there is an ongoing evolution of the “modes of knowledge” enabled by new technologies like the Internet, which allow for new methods of thought and expression.  However, he offers a caveat that these new modes “may not be politically effective” (158), a warning it will be helpful to keep in mind when we analyze the results of our audience research.

Discussion is the dimension that Dahlgren describes as being “the cornerstone of the public sphere” (159), and the one he claims has moved, to a great degree, onto the Internet.  Dahlgren dismisses the claims of critics that the Internet is at best having a negligible effect on democracy, and argues that although only small minorities of people are participating in online democratic and civic activities, that “in the margins, may be something profound that is beginning to take shape in how democracy gets done. If we switch the lens and look from this alternative view, there is evidence that speaks for a much more robust contribution.” (165).  Disappointingly, Dahlgren’s evidence consists of a number of websites – alternative news portals and discussion forums – but very little in the way of empirical evidence to counter Margolis and Resnick’s claim that political life on the Internet is simply an extension of life off the net (164).

Andrew Kohut, on the other hand, citing a 2000 Pew Research study, offers evidence showing that people who get their news online are only slightly better informed than those who get it through traditional sources.  Kohut reports that although online users may be consuming more news, they generally are only looking for stories on topics they are interested in, and that this specialized news consumption is not enhancing or increasing public participation in politics or democracy.   This idea is reinforced by more recent studies by Tolbert and McNeal (2003) and Nisbet and Scheufele (2004).  In the former, Tolbert/McNeal conclude that although the Internet has potential for opening new avenues of political discourse and communication, the new technologies may –as Kohut suggested – narrow exposure and exclude differing viewpoints, thus engendering a “bonding” among like-minded citizens, rather than “bridging” experience, which fosters tolerance for social, cultural and intellectual diversity (184).  The 2004 study conducted by Nisbet/Scheufele finds that the Internet has only had a modest effect on public life, and that the effect is most profound where it is aided by the support of traditional media.  Like Margolis/Resnick, Nisbet/Scheufele assert, “the Internet’s effects are strongly linked to an individual’s ‘real world’ social environment” (891).

In Entertaining Politics, Jeffrey Jones adopts Dahlgren’s model of the six-dimensional circuit, but instead applies each of the modalities to New Political Television (NPTV), and argues that NPTV exhibits each of these conditions, and is thus creating a fertile ground for greater political and civic participation (Jones 187-196).  Citing the example of how the Howard Dean 2004 presidential campaign broke new ground in use of the Internet as a communication tool, and mobilization of a constituency using interactive technology – he makes the claim that NPTV similarly creates a public space where meaningful civic discourse overlaps with popular culture and everyday life (188), creating a precondition for political participation.   Understanding the ways that Jones applies NPTV to Dahlgren’s model will help us construct a definition of audience “participation”, the degree of which I will try to determine from the interviews with The Colbert Report audiences.

For the modality of Discussion in Dahlgren’s model, Jones makes the claim that NPTV contributes to this practice though its “role as an instigator of discursive activity outside the act of watching television” (190).   This is a claim that can be easily measured through our research, and will therefore contribute to our definition of participation.  Dahlgren defines the second modality, Practices, as recurring daily activities – the routines that make up our everyday lives.  Here, Jones contends that television is a “ritualized practice, and politics is one of many topics that audiences interact with on a daily basis” (191) and also that NPTV creates an overlap between politics and our “affective relationship to popular culture” (191). While it may certainly be true that this may engender a mindset necessary for participation, it connotes no specific action on the part of the audience, and will therefore not contribute to our definition of participation.  Similarly for the third modality, Values, which Dahlgren argues is necessary for a citizenry to share in order for democracy to exist.  Jones claims that NPTV provides a public forum where shared values such as honesty and accountability can be “mulled over” (192).  Again, this neither requires nor implies any explicit action on the part of audiences, and so cannot be used in our definition of participation. Additionally, the very terms “honesty” and “accountability” are subjective and open to multiple interpretations, further hindering any kind of empirical measurement.  Knowledge (the fourth modality), however, can be more easily demonstrated.  Both Dahlgren and Jones agree that an informed citizenry is a sine qua non of a healthy democracy.  While it is difficult to ascertain the level or depth of knowledge through an audience interview, we can determine if an interviewee takes certain actions in order to “keep informed” – such as watching the news or reading the newspaper.   Affinity, the fifth modality, is described by Dahlgren as “a sense of commonality among citizens […] that they belong to the same social and political entities” (Dahlgren 157).   Jones argues that both the humor of NPTV and their representation of common sense ideas serve to create this type of affinity among audiences (194).  He also contends that the last modality, Identities, is engendered by NPTV by allowing audiences to think of themselves as citizens by aligning their citizenship with their affective relationship to humor, entertainment, and popular culture (195).  Again, these last 2 modalities are problematic from the standpoint of empirical measurement, and do not require specific action on the part of the audience.  Therefore they, too, will be excluded from our definition of participation.

From Dahlgren and Jones’ discussion of civic culture, we can extract 2 ideas that help define political participation: discussion and knowledge.  We can further determine what other kinds of action audiences take either as a result of, or ancillary to, viewing The Colbert Report by asking about the audience members’ online and political activities.  Therefore, I will attempt to determine participation using the following questions:

  1. How often do you consume the news? (Knowledge)
  2. Do you discuss the content of the show with friends or co-workers? (Discussion)
  3. What kinds of topics come up? (Discussion)
  4. Have you ever posted a comment on the website? (Discussion)
  5. Have you ever shared a video clip? (Discussion)
  6. Is The Colbert Report an informative show? How so? (Knowledge)
  7. Has the show’s coverage of a specific topic (in this case, the economic crisis) taught you something? (Knowledge)
  8. Has The Colbert Report gotten you more involved in politics? (Political action)
  9. Do you participate in online discussions or groups? (Discussion)
  10. Do you vote? (Political action)

To conduct this research, I used a sample of 16 interviews with audiences waiting to see a live taping of The Colbert Report.  The sample consisted of nine men and seven women, 56% of whom were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, 25% between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, and 19% between the ages of fifty and sixty.  38% of the sample declared a college degree as their highest level of education, 31% are currently attending college, 25% have post-graduate degrees, and 6% (1 respondent) claimed high school as his highest level of education.

In order to facilitate discussion as it relates to the ideas of Dahlgren and Jones, I have categorized my findings into three areas: Knowledge, Discussion, and Political Action.


When asked about news consumption, most (81%) claimed that they consume news on a daily basis, with the other 19% receiving their news “sporadically.”  When asked where they get their news, online sources were mentioned the most frequently (18 times) followed by print  (11 times), television (10 times), and radio (2 times).    While this indicates that audiences of The Colbert Report keep themselves at least moderately well-informed, it’s impossible to tell whether their high level of news consumption is in any way a result of watching the show, or whether, perhaps, The Colbert Report simply attracts more well informed people as its audience.  In other words, there is no way to make a causal connection between watching The Colbert Report and increased news consumption.   A more telling metric in this regard lies in the responses to the question: “Is The Colbert Report an informative show?”  To this question, we received exactly the same percentage as in the previous question, with 81% saying they find the show informative, and 19% saying they do not.  However, it’s important to note that only one of the respondents answered that he consumes news sporadically and does not find the show informative.   One avid consumer of the news who did not find the show informative answered that “if you don’t know what he’s talking about, you wouldn’t get the jokes.”  Another audience member gave a qualified “yes” when asked if the show was informative, but added, “if you don’t know what’s going on, you might not really get it.”  These responses lend credence to the idea that The Colbert Report attracts a well-informed audience.   Other responses indicated that audiences were, in fact, learning something from the show.  One woman told us that “I read a ton of online news but I still find that the show will either occasionally break something new or mention an aspect of a story that I haven’t come across yet.”  Another woman who reads the news everyday, indicated that while the show might not be informative for her, it may be for others, stating, “maybe for people who don’t keep up as much with the headlines they could learn something about politics or just news in general.”

The idea that respondents believe others may be informed by the show without being informed themselves, is reinforced by the responses to the question “Has the coverage of the current economic crisis taught you something you were previously unaware of?”  To this, only 12% (2 people) said that it had, and only 6% (1 person) indicated that their perception of the crisis had been changed by something they saw on the show.

Based on the answers to these questions, it would appear that while The Colbert Report certainly attracts a well-informed audience, the program might not increase their level of knowledge in a meaningful way.  There may be some evidence, also, to indicate that they feel as though they are participating in a forum that increases the general knowledge of the audience, even if they do not consider themselves the beneficiaries of such knowledge.


The first question that was asked on the topic of discussion was simply “Do you discuss the content of the show with friends or co-workers?”  To this, almost all (94%) answered in the affirmative.  However, when asked what kinds of topics come up, only 63% said that it often or sometimes leads to political discussions.  The topics that were specifically mentioned included electoral politics, “issues that we care about that come up in context”, NASA, and how the show “exposes politicians and media for the fools they really are.”

While these responses suggest a high level of face-to-face discourse as a result of watching the show, the picture is a bit different when it comes to online discussion and participation.  Not a single respondent said that they had ever posted a comment on the website, either in response to a video clip or in the discussion forum, and 81% said that they do not participate in discussions, groups or forums on the Internet.  2 respondents (12%) said that they “occasionally” participate, and one indicated that she is more of a passive participant, i.e. she reads the discussions but does not contribute to them.

It is interesting to note that an large majority (88%) has watched either a video clip of the show or a full episode online – in fact 3 people said that that’s exclusively how they watch the show – and of those that have, 36% say they have shared a clip with someone else.   In a recent article, Professor Henry Jenkins discusses the phenomenon of online sharing of parody videos, and how this is an example of the participatory culture in which we now live.   This culture, Jenkins says, is “shaped by increased contact and collaboration between established and emerging media institutions, expansion of the number of players producing and circulating media [emphasis mine] and the flow of content across multiple platforms and networks” (189).  In short, Jenkins suggests that this type of sharing constitutes a new language, a new mode of discourse that transcends traditional notions of “discussion.”    If this is true, then The Colbert Report audiences are certainly participants in a form of online discussion as a direct result of watching the show.

Political Action

To the question, “Does The Colbert Report get people more involved in politics, the majority (75%) said that they thought that it did, 12.5% said no, and 12.5% said they don’t know.   When asked who was getting more involved, 42% (of those that said they thought it got people involved) specified “younger people” explaining that The Colbert Report makes news “more fun,” that it is “not as stuffy” as other news programs, or expressed a hope that younger people “will get angry and inspired.”  One 20-year-old man said, “I just think people my age are more inclined to get entertained, and if you can get both, they will take both [sic].”

In the above section on Knowledge, we identified a potential disconnect between audiences thinking the show made people more informed, and the fact that it doesn’t feel as though it makes them more informed.  When asked if the show gets them more involved in politics, we witness a similar phenomenon – only 19% claimed that it got them more involved.  One man in his 50’s with a post-graduate degree told us “I have always been informed, and vote.  [Stephen Colbert] just validates what I believed all along about politicians.”  Once again, these results suggest the possibility that The Colbert Report is simply attracting audiences that are already informed and politically engaged, and that the show reinforces their beliefs without affecting a significant change in their political behavior.

In terms of political participation in the voting process, 100% of the respondents claimed to be registered voters, and all but one voted in the last election.  Only half said that they voted in the election before that, but this was likely due to the age of the respondents, over half of which were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and thus ineligible to vote in the 2004 election.


While Dahlgren’s six-dimension model of civic culture is useful in understanding the ways in which it may be possible to become active participants of democracy, they do not, in and of themselves, provide any assurances that this will occur.  Through close examination of two measurable modalities, Knowledge and Discussion, and the resulting Political Action, I found that audiences of The Colbert Report are certainly well informed and engaged enough with the content of the show to bring it into meaningful discussion, especially with their friends and family.  However, there seems to be a lack of evidence that the show encourages these audiences to participate in political or civic discourse beyond their familial and social circles.  While virtually all respondents in the sample participate in the voting process, only a tiny minority participates in online groups and discussions, or comments on the show’s video clips and message boards.  In the cases of both voting and online activity, it’s difficult to tell whether there is a causal relationship between The Colbert Report and this participation, or whether their civic engagement is a precondition of both their online participation and their involvement with the show.

This is not to say that The Colbert Report does not create a vital forum with the potential for all six of Dahlgren’s conditions and practices to be realized.  Perhaps it’s too early in the evolution of both the Internet and NPTV to be able to determine how these new spaces for thought, humor, critique and participation will open up into the public sphere and create room for a transformation in the way citizens “do” politics.   Perhaps, as Dahlgren, Jones, and Jenkins suggest, this is already happening – that a revolution is underway “in the margins” (Dahlgren 165) and that it is this small minority of engaged and intrepid participants that will lead the way into a future participatory culture that will engage us all.

Works Cited

Dahlgren, Peter. “Reconfiguring Civic Culture in the New Media Milieu.” Media and the Restyling of Politics: Consumerism, Celebrity and Cynicism.  Ed. John Corner and DickPels. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. 151-170

Jenkins, Henry.  “Why Mitt Romney Won’t Debate a Snowman.” Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era.  Ed. Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU Press, 2009. 85-103.

Jones, Jeffrey P.  Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 2005.

Kohut, Andrew. “Internet Users are on the Rise; But Public Affairs Interest Isn’t.” Columbia Journalism Review. January/February, 2000. 68-69.

Lévy, Pierre, and Robert Bononno, trans.  Cyberculture. 1997.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.  166.

Nisbet, Matthew C., and Dietram A. Scheufele. “Political Talk as a Catalyst for Online Citizenship.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. Winter, 2004. Volume 81, Number 4. 877-896.

Tolbert, Caroline J., and Ramona S. McNeal. “Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation.” Political Research Quarterly. June, 2003. Volume 56, Number 2. 175-185

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