The Legacy of The Colbert Report: The 2012 Election and Super PACs


Last week in class we ended up on the subject of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. One girl in my class said that while she enjoys Stephen Colbert, she never knows if he’s being serious. That immediately made me smile, because when I first started watching Colbert I was dumbfounded in the same exact way. It’s the genius of Stephen Colbert the character: “the well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot,” that the viewer does not ever know what to believe as true.

Over the course of more than eight years, Stephen Colbert has entertained us by delving into a lot of hypocrisy and ridiculousness (like that of Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly). Other than entertaining us, The Colbert Report has taught us in many ways.

Sadly, today is the day we say goodbye to The Colbert Report, but not before a few words on the show’s impact and the moments I’ll remember years from now.

While I started watching The Colbert Report around the time I began college four years ago, I didn’t get obsessively into it until the 2012 primary and general elections. My favorite things about the primary elections revolved around Super PACs.

superpacI had previously heard about Super PACs, but I’d never truly understood how they worked. The decision in Citizens United v. FEC changed how elections would work from now on, but prior to Stephen Colbert’s extended explanation, I had never accurately understood Super PACs.  (Other than “Corporations are people, my friend,” of course.)

Stephen Colbert taught us the inner-workings of Super PACs by becoming completely involved in the process. He decided to create his own Super PAC: Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. It raised real money ($1.02 million) and helped launch Colbert’s real run for “President of the United States of South Carolina.”

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“You cannot be a candidate and run a Super PAC—that would be coordinating with yourself”-Trevor Potter

The best parts of all the Super PAC segments during 2011 and 2012 included Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert’s lawyer and a former FEC Chairman. Potter and Colbert made it clear to the viewers how shoddy and sneaky Super PAC guidelines are.

For example, when Colbert decided to run for President of the United States of South Carolina, Potter showcased how Super PACs are still somewhat coordinating with candidates even though they are not coordinating with them on paper. For instance, the person running a Super PAC can still have close ties with the candidate they are supporting. So, being business partners does not count as coordinating.

That opened the gates for Colbert to hand over his Super PAC to his colleague, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and every other candidate with a Super PAC, Stephen Colbert’s closest ally could run his Super PAC “without coordinating” with him as he ran for President of South Carolina.

“There’s almost nothing that’s against the law when it comes to spending political money”- Stephen Colbert

Over the course of a year, Stephen Colbert’s segments on Super PACs and the run-up to the 2012 elections expanded on the average American’s understanding of how Super PACs work. For this, Colbert’s show has won a Peabody Award and has been cited as teaching campaign finance better than many major news networks. And that’s one thing I’ll never forget about The Colbert Report.

If you are interested, here is a good compilation of Stephen Colbert discussing Super PACs on his show and in interviews:

Alas, after today, Stephen Colbert the character is gone. While I will miss his satire, I’m excited for Stephen Colbert the real person to take over Late Show come 2015. Good luck to you, sir.


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