Normally I can’t stand being stuck in traffic. At around 10:30 am Saturday morning I was already an hour late for a pre-rally breakfast, and I was getting nowhere fast. But as my car inched down Constitution Ave., I couldn’t keep a smile off my face.  A steady stream of people coming from all directions was converging on the mall for the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear. I had silently hoped that the rally would have a great turn out and it looked like those hopes were about to be realized.

Half an hour and ten blocks later, I ended up at the breakfast, just in time to leave for the rally. I left as part of a group of around twenty but lost most of our group in the crowd, and arrived on the mall in a group of four. As soon as we hit the rally we were diluted into the massive crowd of energetic rally goers.  One minute I was talking to my friend and the next I was next to a group of Canadians in banana suits.

I had been looking forward to the rally since it was announced, but I didn’t know what to expect. And I was not alone. Leading up to the rally the media had attempted to predict exactly what the rally was going to be. Many assumed Stewart would use it as an opportunity to energize liberal voters just a few days out from the election. What we actually found at the rally was a medley of music, comedy, politics, and Halloween. For the most part, Colbert and Stewart stuck to their opposing characters, playing a conservative fear monger and the voice of reason.

One of the most amazing parts of the experience was the crowd, which was estimated to be around 250,000 people. I’ve been to several rallies in my life but I have never been to one that was so cheerful and pleasant. We were packed onto the mall like sardines, but people squeezed past each other with smiles on their faces, apologizing as they stepped on each other’s feet. There was a great feeling of solidarity and cooperation amongst the group. Taller people used their vantage point in the crowd to fill in the shorter ones about what was happening on stage. Strangers took pictures with each other to commemorate the event. One sign I saw pretty much summed up this spirit: “I’m pretty sure I’d like you if I got to know you.”

The signs were just as much a part of the rally as the people. Most of the signs were a reaction to polarization and hysteria. Some were political, some were witty, some called for open-mindedness and some were downright silly. For those of you who missed out, here are some highlights:

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“So what was this?” asked Stewart toward the end of the rally. He asked permission to be serious for a bit in what turned out to be the highlight of the rally. His call to action was not political. He did not use this as an opportunity to criticize conservatives or push votes for liberal candidates. Instead he put into words a lot of the frustrations that many of us have been feeling recently. He commented that mainstream media puts too much emphasis on party polarization:

“We live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder.”

He also points out the difference between reporting that is informative and reporting that sensationalizes:

“The press could hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofor unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. And then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Stewart’s speech was also uplifting. He points out that despite the media’s propensity to highlight our differences, we are nation that gets by everyday through our compromises and cooperation:

“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is … and why don’t we just work together to get things done. The truth is we do, we work together to get things done every single day. The only place we don’t is here [Congress] or on cable TV. But America doesn’t live here or on cable TV.”

Unlike predictions, the rally was not pro-Obama or pro-liberal. In fact, the government, along with the media was identified as part of the problem. Stewart’s message was not targeted to either end of the political spectrum. Instead, it was targeted to everyone out there who has felt alienated lately by the extreme polarization and fear that has riddled our nation. To those who have been frustrated but aren’t compelled to react violently or hatefully. To those who want to see political leaders working together, instead of placing blame for their inability to work together. To those who want to see activism based on real issues (I mean we have enough of them don’t we?), as opposed to fabricated issues and misinformation. To those who would have preferred to see this Fall’s campaigns focusing on the qualifications of candidates instead of the vilification of their opponents. His message was for people who had thought that they were in the minority because moderate views don’t get the press coverage of the extreme views.

So why were we all there? It was not because we all agreed on a core set of issues. It was because we all agreed on a core  principle. That making room for disagreement and maintaining respect for one another is what being American is about. It’s interesting that it took a comedian to remind us of that.

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