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Stewart rally's point -- don't divide us

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
The signs at the "Rally to Restore Sanity" used humor and emphasized a centrist message.
The signs at the "Rally to Restore Sanity" used humor and emphasized a centrist message.
  • John Avlon: The "Restore Sanity" rally emphasized moderation and humor
  • He says the big crowd yearned for an alternative to extreme partisanship
  • Avlon says some tried to spin it as a liberal event, but the real theme was a centrist one
  • Hyperpartisans should "stop trying to divide Americans in an attempt to conquer," he says

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- At the end of a bitter political season too often hijacked by the extremes, the Rally to Restore Sanity was a heartening reaffirmation of American humor, smarts and civility.

This year's previous political rallies on the Washington mall -- Glenn Beck's "Restore Honor" rally and the labor/liberal corollary "One Nation" rally emceed by Ed Schultz -- seemed like grim partisan marches compared to the optimism of this overflowing crowd composed of Americans from the sensible center.

While Beck asked his supporters not to bring signs (presumably for fear of the distractions they might create) and Schultz's rally signs were mostly printed up by unions and activist groups, the signs at the Restore Sanity rally were clearly homemade. And like hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, they used satire to comment on the political insanity that surrounds us. Among the signs I saw:

• God Hates Nags

• The Rant Is Too Damn High

• Restrain the Craziness

• Civil War was an Inside Job

• Texans for Staying in the Union

• Obama: At Least He Isn't James Buchanan

• Hitler was Hitler

• Want Less Government? Move to Somalia (not that there's anything wrong with that...)

• Real Patriots Can Handle a Difference of Opinion

• Real Americans Don't Use the Term 'Real Americans'

• I read the Constitution for the Articles

• I Masturbate and I Vote

• Moderate to the Extreme

Video: Rally delivers message with humor
Video: 'Rally was a high wire act'
Video: Stewart, Colbert wrap up rally
Video: Moms march for sanity

The content from the stage was essentially a comedy show mixed with musical guests.

The message was communicated mostly in "show don't tell" sketches. In one, Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, came out to play the hippie anthem "Peace Train," interrupted by Ozzy Osbourne playing "Crazy Train" -- culminating with the O'Jays "Love Train," a train we can all get on board.

But the crowd was making a fairly consistent, if irreverent, political statement -- from the couple who drove up from Florida with a sign that quoted from a '70s pop song: "Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am -- stuck in the middle with you," to a sign that read, "What do we want? Moderation! When do we want it? In a reasonable timeframe!"

College students from Massachusetts made their point for the media: "Can we get some airtime, please? -- The Moderates."

"I think there's too much polarization going on -- and of course the squeaky wheel gets the grease," said Reba Winstead of Virginia, whose husband was laid off last year. She was holding a sign that read "One of the Moderate Majority." "And so the extremists on both ends are the ones screaming the loudest and so the rest of us are in the middle thinking that we're not being heard."

Another woman held a sign that quoted legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow: "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason."

Some partisan journalists tried to spin the rally as just a liberal event, but they missed the point by reinforcing the idea that has helped get us into this mess: that if you're not with us, you're against us; that if you're not conservative, you're liberal.

In fact, the only two signs I saw for actual candidates running this fall were for independents Lincoln Chafee and Charlie Crist. And while there was no shortage of anger expressed, at Fox News in particular, at what other rally would you see a sign that read: "Palin and Pelosi: Both Nice Ladies."

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Real Americans Don't Use the Term 'Real Americans'
--A sign at the "Restore Sanity" rally

In comparing rallies, size matters -- and having covered the conservative and liberal rallies on the mall earlier this year, I can tell you that the Restore Sanity rally was much larger. This is fitting, because there are more Americans in the center than those who are on the right or left. And there are certainly more Americans who prefer the leavening effects of laughter to ideological fear-mongering.

But for all the humor and affirmation, the Restore Sanity rally ultimately had a serious point that will apply when the election is over -- namely, that we have to work together to solve problems, but our polarized politics and the partisan media are stopping our ability to reason together as Americans.

As Jon Stewart said in his instant classic of a closing speech: "Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is -- on the brink of catastrophe -- torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. But the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here [in Washington] or on cable TV."

So this celebration of sanity and humor came with a challenge to hyperpartisans in politics and media -- stop playing to the lowest common denominator, stop trying to divide Americans in an attempt to conquer. The American people are smart and "most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals," as Stewart remarked.

The rally's size and enthusiasm was evidence of a growing demand for something different -- an alternative to predictable talking points and the partisan spin cycle, a desire for humor and honesty, independence and integrity. It is both an opportunity and an obligation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John P. Avlon.