Finally, the focus on “sanity.” Talk about condescending. The Tea Party types who believe that expanding government undermines their freedom are not insane. They’re tapping into a deeply-rooted American fear of government power, one that would be immediately recognizable to Calvin Coolidge or Strom Thurmond. And in the process, they’re conjuring, once again, the myth that America was born free, and surrenders a smidgen of liberty every time Washington imposes another tax or establishes another government agency. (The Tea Partiers may not be racists, but it’s hardly surprising that this idealized image of 19th Century America doesn’t impress African-Americans). The Tea Partiers, in other words, are making a serious argument, which the left too often tries to dismiss by calling them nuts. In fact, the haughtiness reflected by such insults conceals the left’s confusion over how to respond ideologically. The Obama administration has barely tried to argue that activist government can make people more free—by, for instance, guaranteeing their health care coverage and thus freeing them to leave a dead end job. In America today, as at past moments in our history, there’s a profound debate underway not just about how to right our economy but about the relationship between capitalism and freedom. Pretending it’s not a real debate is a great way for the left to lose.

Maybe it’s not fair to blame Jon Stewart for all this. He’s a comedian, after all. But he’s the left’s closest equivalent to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. And while they’re busy struggling to recreate the America of William McKinley, he’s acting as if our biggest problem is that people shout at each other on the tube. For a guy as talented as Stewart, that’s insane.