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.