Socialism on the Small Screen: On "Parks and Recreation"




Socialism on the Small Screen: On "Parks and Recreation" by Matthew Gannon

A History of Progressivism in Pawnee

April 23rd, 2013 reset - +

NBC’s PARKS AND RECREATION, never shying from political controversy, examines current beltway tensions in ways one might expect from a more overtly political program. This season more than ever, the tendentious questions of American governance have become the show's lifeblood, its fictive small town of Pawnee, Indiana struggling with political tribulations closely mirroring those on the national stage — and proposing some bold solutions.

The season’s first episode follows the lead character, Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, to Washington DC, where she met real political figures such as Joe Biden (her hero), Olympia Snowe, Barbara Boxer, and John McCain. Recent episodes have been titled "Soda Tax" and "How a Bill Becomes a Law" and highlight the nitty-gritty — if comically histrionic — details about local politics. In addition, the show's constant use of innuendo surrounding current political events, reenactment of debates concerning economics and governance, and tongue-in-cheek references to the increasing conservatism of American politics have made Parks and Rec more a comedic primer in American politics than a primetime comedy.

The show has always been a bastion of mainstream American progressivism — progressive taxes, social liberalism, anti-corporatism — and ranks amongst the most popular television shows for liberals. However, this mainstream progressivism has begun veering even further left. A notable case was the March 14 episode, titled “Bailout,” which blossomed into an unexpected, and perhaps partly unintentional, exploration of socialist politics and posed some subtle but profound questions about the role of government in society. It did so rather fearlessly as well, considering America's checkered past for tolerating serious leftist politics. 

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Parks and Rec has always been a somewhat silly defense of government, especially local government — silly in its antics of course, while very serious in its convictions. The show is reacting to something very real in American politics today: a steady but inveterate listing to the political right. The Tea Party movement, Fox News, the NRA and many others accuse the government of everything from “death panels” to killing their family pets. A slew of public figures — Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity — rant and rave through conservative media channels 24 hours a day about impending socialist uprisings and the tyranny that will inevitably result. Discussions about moderate gun control and affordable healthcare are translated into conservative doublespeak as government tyranny and flagrant totalitarianism. Even a moderate plan for tax increases, such as that proposed by the billionaire finance tycoon Warren Buffet, is derided as class warfare.

As conservatives have become increasingly radical, Parks and Rec has kept pace, parodying their discourse and casting the show in an ever more progressive light. In the first episode of season two, after accidentally marrying two male penguins at the local zoo, Leslie faces gay marriage critics. A citizen's outrage puts her under fire from conservative activists, and though she first insists that she wasn't trying to take a stand on same-sex marriage, that it was just a simple mix-up, the radicalism of her antagonist forces her into vigorously defending marriage equality. 

That episode aired in September 2009, a time when President Obama still officially opposed gay marriage and a number of measures in support of gay marriage (such as those in California and Maine) had been or soon would be voted down by popular vote. Progressive causes were simply not that popular. Nevertheless, since that episode, Parks and Rec has continually run programming supporting progressive tax reform, equal rights for women, government investment in public works, and anti-corporate politics.

Beyond just bouncing from one contentious political issue to the next, the most progressive element of Parks and Rec is its core argument: that government isn't perfect but still can serve the public good if those running it have their hearts and minds in the right place. In the show’s political imagination, Leslie Knope, with her indefatigable dedication to her community and constituents, is the perfect civil servant. Leslie loves her city and its citizens, and that is the key factor in her flair for government work. This became abundantly clear at the end of the second season, with the Pawnee government on the verge of a shutdown. Leslie's colleague (and sometime love interest) Mark Brendanawicz takes a buyout from the Pawnee government. Leslie calls him “Brendana-quits” and accuses him of being a sell-out. Mark protests, reminding Leslie: “You know, not everyone has your enthusiasm for this work,” later remarking, “If everyone in government were like you, then I would probably still work there.” 

Mark is only pointing out what the viewer already knows — that government isn't wholly evil, nor is it killing your pets, or creating "death panels." Not all government employees are like Leslie Knope, but not helping matters is the incessant pessimism about government, which drives a lot of potential talent away from the public sector in the first place. As Leslie said in the penguin episode: "This is the reason why people don't go into politics. Because, you know, I bust my ass for the people in this city, and I can't win." Maybe it’s not government itself that is failing, it's the people who intentionally deride government, give it impossible obstacles to overcome, or, through their obstructionism, help fulfill their own prophecies of an ineffective government. We get the government we deserve, says Parks and Rec, and, as demonstrated in numerous Pawnee public hearings, the show is a sober look at an often-pathetic electorate. 

Parks and Rec implores that citizens hold their governments to high standards and not let them off the hook. It asks that we support serious politicians with an eye for positive change and hard work, not corrupt officials, like this season’s notorious Councilman Jamm, who bends to corporate interest for dubious kickbacks. In fact, the antipathy between Leslie and Jamm represents the struggle for the heart of government in politics today. On the one side is Jamm, who believes government is ineffective and inefficient (and attempts to profit from such inefficiency). On the other side is Leslie, who believes that government should in all cases serve the people and resist the corporate agenda. As we know, politicians who are overly pessimistic about the role of government often block progress just to make a partisan point. In fact, Marco Rubio recently went so far as to claim that "government can't control the weather," an example of the gross oversimplification and persistent obstructionism that ensure that even if the government could control the weather it surely wouldn't try.

It's not always easy to see who is earnest and who is corrupt. Last season's city council race between Leslie Knope and the inept but bankrolled Bobby Newport (played brilliantly by Paul Rudd) made clear that the serious candidate and the corporate sellout often look similar in public, particularly when the latter is well coached by a trained campaign professional. Still, Parks and Rec remains adamant: government can be of, by, and for the people; it just takes some hard work from the elected and the electorate to make it so. Be skeptical, but work towards progress in any capacity. Pessimism of the spirit is acceptable, but optimism of the will is essential. Democracy and responsible governance are difficult to grasp, but they are nevertheless within reach.

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Parks and Rec viewers know that the show also revolves around Leslie’s co-worker, Ron Swanson. Though friends, Ron and Leslie couldn’t be more different. Leslie is an ambitious bureaucrat, optimistic about government and relentlessly chipper. Ron is a man’s man — a whiskey-drinking, government-hating, capitalism-loving American with a side of steak. That Ron, a trenchant libertarian, works for the government and used to be Leslie’s longtime boss, creates significant comedic tension and potential for clashing ideologies.

Such clashes occur frequently, but no more so than during Parks and Rec’s latest foray into topicality. In “Bailout,” the show examines one of the most controversial political maneuvers of recent history. The episode revolves around Dennis, owner of the Pawnee Videodome, a video rental store. The prevalence of streaming movies has forced Dennis, played by Jason Schwartzman, to shut down the Videodome. Leslie Knope, now a city councilwoman, is distraught at the potential loss of small business in Pawnee and devises a plan to save the store. If she can get the historical society to grant the Videodome historic landmark status, it could get a tax exemption that effectively serves as a government bailout. 

This excursion in Keynesian economics predictably runs afoul of Ron, who sees this move as, in his words, “the government meddling in private enterprise," and he isn’t having any of it. At a public hearing, the normally subdued Ron voices his stern opposition to the plan: "This action by Councilwoman Knope is nothing more than a thinly veiled government bailout. And I, for one, refuse to let her turn this town into a socialist hellscape."

This comically overblown rhetoric from Ron is something viewers have come to expect. He is the show's resident curmudgeon, stalwart libertarian, and arch-capitalist. Ron highlights his economic affinities in a season three episode when he describes capitalism to a youth basketball team as "God's way of determining who is smart, and who is poor." In a later episode, Ron lectures a nine-year-old girl about why government matters: "It doesn't." His longer answer to the question of government runs slightly more vulgar: "The government is a greedy piglet that suckles on the taxpayers teat until they have sore, chapped nipples."

There is something curious about “Bailout" though, and it hinges on what at first seems like a plot hole. Consider this government subsidy Leslie is offering Pawnee Videodome. She’s made it clear that it’s not actually a bailout, but a tax exemption. Shouldn't a man who once ate 40 percent of a nine-year-old's lunch to teach her about taxes, by his own logic, support tax exemptions? This plot discrepancy, which appears minor at first, unravels deeper discrepancies about the nominal libertarian Ron Swanson. 

Even a slightly nuanced reading of the Swanson character reveals more egalitarian strands than his ultra-capitalist persona might suggest. Ron is well known for supporting gender and sexual equality. He often eschews traditional standards of beauty (he once told a blonde woman that she would make an incredible brunette, tantamount to heresy in Hollywood) and he famously led a group of intrepid scouts known as "Swansons" that was startlingly diverse in terms of race and gender. He often boasts of his attraction to strong, intelligent women, and his current girlfriend on the show is Lucy Lawless, who embodied the archetype of female strength on Xena: Warrior Princess (and also cemented her status as a lesbian icon). 

If Ron is remarkably socially progressive, his fiscal allegiances are more complex than the character claims. Despite his free market rhetoric, Swanson is no capitalist. Capitalism means competitive free markets, international trade, banks, finance, investing, profits, consumerism, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Above all, capitalism means capital, and that means money. But Ron would rather chop wood than start a business. Far from being the ultimate consumerist, an IRS review of Ron's taxes (from the season four episode "Ron and Tammys") revealed that he never keeps receipts (Leslie: "Ron, most of these aren't even receipts. This one says 'I bought supplies. 2007.'"), he makes transactions through "gentleman's agreements," exchanges goods not for money but directly for other useful goods (he once traded a table he made for 60 feet of copper pipe and a half pig), and spent about $40 on clothes in the past four years, making him the least interesting consumer ever.

It is true that Ron shows some serious affinities for libertarianism: he hates taxes, despises government regulations, and loves gold ("I've heavily invested in gold. Which I've buried in several different locations around Pawnee ... Or have I?"). But Ron's refusal to engage with the capitalist market along with his strong social egalitarianism and his mistrust of markets and the state align him more closely with anarcho-syndicalism than any conservative political-economic system. Rather than a libertarian capitalist, this would make Ron something of a libertarian socialist.

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Why would Parks and Rec go out of its way to have Ron incessantly proclaim libertarian virtues while engaging in progressivist politics? The answer lies beyond the show itself, in the vitriolic rhetoric about socialism coming from conservative camps such as the Tea Party. In 2009 a rogue group of Republicans intended to make a statement saying that the Democrats should officially refer to themselves as socialists. Party leaders deterred them from doing so, but the red-baiting and fear-mongering remains.

To be on the left of the political spectrum in America is to be a prime target for the epithet “socialist.” The argument such conservatives make is not that socialism doesn't work or isn't the best option for the US. Their argument is that socialism is evil and must be quashed by any means necessary. This extremely limiting political argument stifles free political expression and so, by posing as ultra-conservative, characters such as Ron can work around this political suppression and make surprisingly progressive cases for government interventionism. In this way Parks and Rec plays a subversive narrative trick to invoke serious, and often taboo, political questions. By doing so within the confines of a fictional small town on network television, the show’s political expression gains national implications.

Because of this censored political climate, shows like Parks and Rec are forced to take cover under the protection of a comic conservative who isn’t really much of a capitalist at all. The same goes for Leslie. Her progressive views are explicit, but she constantly grounds them in centrist rhetoric. During the Videodome bailout, she insists that she isn’t against capitalism: “I like capitalism. I love competition.” But like Ron, Leslie too is subject to this trick of concealing progressive politics in conservative garb. 

“Bailout” serves as a perfect example of the way the show employs character quirks and local politics to explore national and deeply historic debates about governance. By invoking a “socialist hellscape,” Ron makes it seem that nothing could possibly be more leftist than a government bailout. But while viewers laugh at the absurdity of the red-baiting, Leslie Knope goes ahead and deploys actual socialist tactics. 

To understand the context of socialism in Parks and Rec, it is useful to view the show, and the episode “Bailout” in particular, as something like a sitcom version of Economics 101. In “Bailout,” Leslie first calls upon capitalism to rescue Pawnee Videodome, the tried and true all-American system. In this first attempt to help Dennis (and more broadly, Pawnee artistic and cultural life) Leslie resorts to consumerism, the driving force behind capitalism: "Everybody rent something so we can help Dennis." 

This attempt to affect a cultural cause through consumerist economics fails immediately. As one Pawnee resident points out to Leslie, why would anybody rent a movie when they are all free online? Plus, Dennis’s films are too artistic and avant-garde — he doesn’t even carry Finding Nemo! His uncompromising dedication to cultural value clashes with capitalism, which is unable to sufficiently provide cultural and community value without incentives for fiscal value.

The next solution is the bailout, a mainstream progressive option and an appeal to Keynesian economics and liberal democracy. But this measure fails, too. With its influx of bailout money and strict instructions to carry popular films, Pawnee Videodome swiftly turned into "Pawnee Videodome: XXX Adult DVD Emporium." Rather than preserving what Leslie called a "Pawnee cultural institution," she gave it the means to completely self-destruct.

Consumerist capitalism and tepid government interventionism — i.e., the bailout — didn't work because, by the logic of Parks and Rec, government and business just don't mix when profit is the goal. What options are left for Leslie Knope? At the very end of the episode Leslie abandons capitalism and liberal democracy, and goes to democratic socialism: the Pawnee government provides for the people directly by screening movies entirely free of charge, followed by regular intellectual discussions. In the sitcom version of Economics 101, this is akin to government nationalizing the video industry. It's a cheaper, more democratic, and ultimately more sustainable solution, and it avoids the problem of having to hunt for capital and squeeze a profit out of unprofitable resources.

Parks and Rec doesn’t insist that full-on communism is the ultimate answer to social or fiscal problems. It does, however, suggest that nationalization of certain industries is a tenable solution. Industries like park services and the arts as well as healthcare, education, pharmaceuticals, and energy production, may be best operated not by those hungering for profit, but those looking to serve their communities as effectively and humanely as possible. A democratic government, which Parks and Rec has so unflinchingly defended throughout its run, is the best political and cultural resource a united people have. Leslie ultimately realizes that private enterprise, even when propped up by government support, cannot hope to be a genuine provider of cultural, artistic, aesthetic, and community value. It is up to the people to do that for themselves. This isn’t some communist nightmare of Glenn Beck proportions, but it may be a little socialist.

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Parks and Recreation is — along with its offbeat characters, one-liners, and witty dialogue — ultimately a television program about the machinations of politics, the role of government, the separation of church and state, corporate interest, politicking and elections, and the gritty details of tax policy. Despite the great interest in current shows such as House of Cards and modern classics such as The West Wing, Parks and Rec just may be the most important show on television about government and politics. Much like other witty political shows (like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), Parks and Rec makes you laugh while you (re)consider issues as broad as the role of government and as benign as taxes on sugary beverages. Its fearless determination that government, while imperfect, is necessary and often a force for good is a refreshing change from the droning pessimism of the 24-hour news cycle. 

Many dramas use politics to explore human nature, power struggles, and broad existential issues. Alternatively, Parks and Rec uses human nature, especially its comedic elements, to explore political issues. It is steeped in the stuff of centuries-old debates about government and society while simultaneously engaged in the governmental challenges of today. It is a show for John Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson. It is a show for Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR. And maybe even occasionally it is a show for socialists. Not Stalinists or Maoists, but for those who support universal healthcare, robust parks, economic equality, and uncompromisingly democratic politics. Eschewing authoritarianism in all its forms, it doesn't seek to convince viewers through brute narrative force. The human stories that serve as examples and thought experiments for governance are deeply personal, employing romance, disappointment, joy, and loss. Parks and Recreation is progressive, it is personal, it is political, and, above all, it is funny.

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