When comedian Stephen Colbert petitioned the Federal Election Commission for permission to form Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow (a.k.a., the Colbert Super PAC), people laughed to see Colbert use the campaign finance system to lampoon that very system. “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical,” he said upon receiving FEC approval.

The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court now allows “independent-expenditure only committees” like Colbert’s to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or attack candidates. But with the debut of Colbert’s first television ads ahead of Iowa’s Ames straw poll, it is clear that Colbert’s target list is broader than candidates and campaign finance.

Another YouTube video points to one aspect of the Colbert super PAC’s targets that deserves more attention from progressives. In it, Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, describes how magicians use human pattern seeking to trick both the eye and mind.

Teller begins, “One thing that magicians do is take advantage of our natural inclination to study something that we see done over and over again and think that we’re learning something … If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.” With Fox News as well. Especially if you think you’re learning something.

To make their illusions work, magicians use that pattern reflex to manage audience attention and lead them to false assumptions about reality. Penn & Teller do more. Their magic/comedy shows bring audiences into the act by exposing how the tricks are done.

What the Iowa ads from Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow do is something similar. By calling out grifter super PACs by name, by revealing to the audience in satirical fashion how political ads attempt to manipulate them, Colbert lets the audience “in on the trick.” He’s telling them what to watch for when “out of state groups” like Grow PAC and Jobs for Iowa PAC “flood the airwaves” with their ads.

Faced with the massive amounts of money that flowed into conservative political ads in the wake of Citizens United, progressives face the daunting prospect of finding ways to fight back. Lacking comparable funding, there seem to be few ways for grassroots groups to mount an effective messaging counteroffensive. But few doesn’t mean none.

The Agenda Project’s “America the Beautiful” ad targeted Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan and – buying no air time – garnered tons of earned media after it went viral on YouTube. But that “earned media” strategy probably is not workable for mounting a sustained campaign against millions of dollars in corporate-funded ad buys.

Yet in spite of that, and unlike most progressive organizations, Colbert has positioned himself to fight back in the mainstream media against the Citizens United money flood – just what the progressive community wants, if not in the high-minded way it might imagine for itself. But even Colbert’s modest effort in Iowa is better than the mainstream messaging vehicle progressives don’t have. As much as they might value Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” progressives have not yet embraced Colbert’s super PAC as much more than Onion-like satire.

That could be a missed opportunity. Because Colbert has the national presence and media platform progressive groups lack for raising money and mainstreaming the kind of smackdown most political advertising deserves. Besides, attempting “serious” in this political environment might be a riskier maneuver than the progressive movement can successfully pull off. “Maybe the whole system has become such a joke,” writes the New York Times‘ David Carr, “that only jokes will serve as a corrective.”

Joining Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow’s efforts to spotlight other super PACs’ manipulation just might be progressives’ best bet for gaining ground in an otherwise asymmetrical fight. (As a bonus, Colbert adds donors’ names to the HEROE$ crawl that runs during his show.) Expect Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC to get extra special attention from Colbert’s super PAC. That alone should merit progressive financial support.

As the Fox News Channel’s short-lived “1/2 Hour News Hour” graphically demonstrated, humor is one of the few areas of political warfare where liberals wield superior firepower. In a battle in which they are otherwise outgunned, it would be a mistake for progressives to dismiss Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow’s effort as a mere comedic stunt rather than help Colbert deploy it to maximum effect. Of all people, progressive “dirty hippies” should be able to appreciate what it is like to be treated as unserious.

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Tom Sullivan

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