As the nastiest US election campaign on record, in the angriest political climate in living memory, reaches its climax, tens of thousands of people poured into the nation's capital yesterday in a "Rally to Restore Sanity". But they left open the question of whether the event came just in time, or far, far too late.
The mainly young crowd had responded to a call to arms from Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and America's satirist-in-chief, to pack the National Mall for a mass gathering that was part comedy show, part plea to end the histrionics that has passed for political debate this year.
In conception and execution, the event was an answer to the Tea Party rallies that have reshaped the US political landscape since they began last year. Democrats, who face losing control of at least one and possibly both houses of Congress on Tuesday, were looking to the rally as their last hope of galvanising enough moderates to prevent a Tea Party-infused Republican movement from sweeping them away.
For Stewart, whose nightly programme on Comedy Central is cited by millions as their major, if not only, source of political news, the event was the culmination of years of harpooning idiocy in politics and the media, and the latest iteration of his long feud with Rupert Murdoch's rightist news channel, Fox News.
The rally, Stewart said, was for people "who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler moustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles." The philosophy was underscored by the mocking appearance yesterday, too, of Stephen Colbert, his long-time collaborator, appearing in his usual guise as a reactionary right-wing talk show host, who urged the crowds to "march to keep fear alive". Also on the bill were the hip-hoppers the Roots and the strumming liberal Sheryl Crow.
Announcing the rally last month, Stewart had suggested placards including "I disagree with you but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler" and "Take it down a notch for America". Choice signs on the Mall yesterday included "Down with blood pressure" and "Think outside the Fox".
The sentiments on show were the same ones that Barack Obama captured in his presidential campaign two years ago, with his promise of a new kind of politics where "we can disagree without being disagreeable". In power, that has proved to be an impossible promise, ever since last year's debate over healthcare reform, with its angry town hall scenes and accusations that the President planned "death panels" for the elderly.
The Rally to Restore Sanity was conceived as liberal antivenin to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honour" rally in August on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The emotional warnings of the Fox News host about impending socialism and moral degradation in the US have turned him into one of the most powerful conservative voices, and an inspiration for the Tea Party, as well as one of the favourite targets for Stewart's ridicule. When Beck organised his rally on the site and on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, Stewart mercilessly attacked the demagoguery – and it was only a matter of time before The Daily Show team decided to head for the logical conclusion.
So yesterday's Rally to Restore Sanity was pure parody. Beck always insisted his event was non-political, a fundraiser designed to honour US troops and to call for the restoration of God to the centre of American life, though the appearance of Sarah Palin gave the lie to that claim. Stewart is walking his own tightrope, insisting his is no liberal rally, but a call for both sides to cool it.
Some 10,000 people from New York alone set off at 6am on buses chartered by the millionaire blogger Arianna Huffington, who – in what she said was a moment of "irrational exuberance" – had promised to pick up the tab for as many people as wanted to join her. In the end, she needed almost 200 buses.
"Taking a stand for sanity is not a partisan position. It's neither right nor left. It's reasonable. We have to stop demonising anyone we disagree with," she told the Daily News.
The President riffed on similar themes in his weekly YouTube address yesterday, and took aim at comments earlier in the week from Republican leaders. The House minority leader John Boehner had declared "this is not a time for compromise", while Mitch McConnell, the party's Senate leader, asked what his priority would be after the election, declared: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Mr Obama said: "It's not surprising we're seeing this heated rhetoric. But when the ballots are cast and the voting is done, we need to put this kind of partisanship aside – win, lose or draw."
Earlier last week, the President appeared on The Daily Show itself, going a few gentle rounds with Stewart in the hope of winning back disillusioned young voters.
Going into the final weekend, pollsters reiterated that the Democrats would lose the lower House of Representatives. There is a real chance that Republicans could win the Senate, too, where just over a third of the seats are being contested. The latest Rasmussen Reports summary shows that seven Senate races are toss-ups, including the Nevada seat where the majority leader, Harry Reid, is narrowly behind in a vicious fight with the Tea Party's Sharron Angle. Republicans have a slight edge in five of the seven and, if reflected on polling day, that could split the Senate 50-50.
Desperate underdogs rolled out increasingly vicious ads as the mid-term campaign progressed. A study by the Wesleyan Media Project, which looked at 900,000 political ads aired this year, concluded last week: "Democrats are using personal attacks at much higher rates than Republicans, and at a much higher rate than Democrats in 2008."Reuse content