Many liberals, but not conservatives, believe there is an important asymmetry in American politics. These liberals believe that people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum are fundamentally different. Specifically, they believe that liberals are much more open to change than conservatives, more tolerant of differences, more motivated by the public good and, maybe most of all, smarter and better informed.
The evidence for these beliefs is not good. Liberals turn out to be just as prone to their own forms of intolerance, ignorance and bias. But the beliefs are comforting to many. They give their bearers a sense of intellectual and even moral superiority. And they affect behavior. They inform the condescension and self-righteousness with which liberals often treat conservatives. They explain why many liberals have greeted Tea Partiers and other grass-roots conservatives with outsize alarm. They explain why liberals fixate on figures such as Sarah Palin and Todd Akin, who represent the worst that many liberals are prepared to see in conservatives. These liberals often end up sounding like Jon Lovitz, on “Saturday Night Live,” impersonating Michael Dukakis in 1988, gesturing toward the Republican and saying “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy!” This sense of superiority is hardly the only cause of our polarized public discourse, but it sure doesn’t help.
And Mr. Stewart, who signed off from “The Daily Show” on Thursday, was more qualified than anybody to puncture this particular pretension. He trained his liberal-leaning audience to mock hypocrisy, incoherence and stupidity, and could have nudged them to see the planks in their own eyes, too. Instead, he cultivated their intellectual smugness by personifying it.
His claims to be objective fell flat. For instance, Mr. Stewart denied being in President Obama’s corner by re-airing a clip in which he had made fun of the Obamacare website’s rollout, as if that was the same as questioning Obamacare itself. That was par for Mr. Stewart’s course, mocking liberals’ tactics and implementation but not their underlying assumptions or ideas.