Last week, a new initiative was launched in the United States — We the
Voters, a series of 20 short films with lofty ambitions: to entertain, inform, inspire, and engage young voters who might otherwise claim the topic — ugh, government — is either too boring, too broken, too corrupt, or simply irrelevant to their lives.
We the Voters, with its message that government is what you make it, says otherwise. And it’s that last goal of each film that’s perhaps the loftiest of all: to engage young voters and reveal — through comedy and political satire — that they still have a stake, and still have a say, in how politics should be waged and how politicians should act.
All in a few minutes.
It’s a tall order.
As a co-founder of Pilot Media Initiatives, and as a writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and other political satire television shows for the past two decades, I’ve been committed to the idea that political satire is perhaps our best chance (our last chance?) to bring attention to vital issues that don’t receive enough attention, and command the attention of the exact group who should be paying attention. Ask the average young voter, and they’ll say: Politicians skirt the issues; political satire lays them bare.
It is a proven model — and one we at PMI feel is suited for not only the United States, but around the world. We the Voters is a good example of what voter education and engagement projects can look like in other democratic countries that are confronting unpredictable elections (as we are in the U.S.) and embracing freedom of speech. Because although the world is complex and chaotic, the mission of a project like We the Voters remains straightforward: enhance young viewers’ political knowledge and critical thinking skills.
It doesn’t tell viewers who to vote for. It tells them how to vote.
We’ve seen, through our work with PMI and in development projects around the world — where voter turnout is low and segments of the voting population are unengaged — that development actors struggle to hook target audiences and get their message across. Traditional voter education media campaigns can come across as dry and unappealing. Whereas Jon Stewart was voted the most trustworthy, newsworthy, and attention-worthy “news anchor” since Walter Cronkite.
It no one’s fault; it’s where we are.
But political satire is what we should do.
Political satire makes complex issues accessible to wider audiences. It captures their attention. By not insulting their intelligence, it gains their trust.
And what then?
In the end, the We the Voters initiative, and the work we do at Pilot Media Initiatives, is about far more than political satire videos. Visitors to the We The Voters site can register to vote, learn more about the issues and loop their family and friends into the conversation. This two-pronged approach — hooking target audiences through viral videos and then bringing them to an online resource that facilitates further action — is a model for effective voter education and civic engagement projects.
Local and international organizations devoted to voter education and civic engagement, especially ahead of general elections, would be wise to integrate such political satire media into their program design.
These days, if you want to teach, you have to laugh.