Last month, USC welcomed liberal atheist Bill Maher, who delivered a stand-up show that featured jokes about a 10-year-old Donald Trump and Jerry Sandusky and phrases such as “blacktracking.” On Sunday, religious conservative Ann Coulter spoke about her latest book, and during the talk, interspersed serious criticism of the Republican Party with creative descriptions of how she envisioned the hosts of MSNBC committing suicide.
Most liberals hate Coulter. Most conservatives hate Maher. Apparently, each side has discovered that it can use Google to instantly compile a host of reprehensible things that the other side had said. To be sure, Maher and Coulter occasionally cross the line, but the reactions of even their supporters usually keep them in check. For every crack at immigrants or minorities that Coulter makes, Maher is there to match her with a mockery of the religious or far right republicans.
In the context of the majority of the material that Maher covers on his show or that Coulter writes about in her columns, the quotes for which they are most notorious make up shockingly little of what they actually say. Oddly enough, most folks’ opposition to the pair begins with the misconception that they are, on some level, serious about these most flagrant of assertions. This assumption should be challenged.
I overheard a woman sitting at the Ann Coulter event say that she was such a fan of Coulter, not because she agreed with what Coulter said, but because she thought Ann Coulter was the most masterful “troll” of the decade. By troll, she borrowed a term from the Internet generation to mean that Coulter is really just messing with everyone when she suggest things such as, “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building.”
Given this, we can separate the goals of Coulter and Maher into two categories: to make money and to get people fired up. Though almost everyone in politics wants to make money — a glance at how many presidential candidates end up landing TV shows proves this point decisively — it’s more interesting to examine the latter point.
In most cases, political hatred and partisan rhetoric has done the United States great harm, especially when that rhetoric comes from elected officials who are tasked with crafting and passing laws. In the case of Maher and Coulter, though their hate-speech is taken seriously by a solid portion of their followers, in most cases, it does more to get people involved in the serious issues of politics than it does to damage society.
But again, why do Maher and Coulter do what they do? The simple answer is they wouldn’t be nearly as successful if they had begun their careers writing for the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Bill Maher rakes in millions from a weekly show on HBO and the occasional national comedy tour. Ann Coulter, who writes a syndicated column each week, appears frequently on national news programs. Oh, and that book she was promoting? It was her eighth New York Times best-seller.
Voters are busy. Too busy to listen to candidate debates, too busy to keep up with the news and oftentimes too busy to make an informed decision. One thing that Coulter and Maher bring to politics is that they make voters care. Simply put, Coulter and Maher give voters something to hate. Ironically, that might do more for productive politics than it does to hurt it.
This idea is made stronger by examining the ideas, again ironically, that Coulter and Maher agree on. In both of their talks, they discussed a hatred of the media. Each discussed politicians who disappoint voters by giving over to special interests and lobbyists when they get elected. Most telling of all is their response to people who suggest they run for office. Both are quick to emphasize that they would be the last people they would recommend run for office.
That’s not their job. Their job is not to represent voters, but rather to get voters to care. In a perfect world, Coulter and Maher wouldn’t do that by making the flagrant remarks that they do, but in a perfect world, everyone would also vote. In the spirit of not making the perfect the enemy of the good, Maher and Coulter might do more good for American politics than they do bad.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in economics and political science. His column “A House Divided” runs Thursdays.
Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @Haas4Prez2036