Parks and Recreations and Politicians and Bureaucrats

By Alyssa Rosenberg

I’ve been meaning to do a marathon catch-up of Parks and Recreation for a while. Fortunately, Juliet Lapidos’s weird (though not in a Slate-y counterintuitive way) Slate piece about the show’s politics gave me an excuse to sit down and watch Parks and Rec straight through. Lapidos argues that the show is about Republican and Democratic views of neighborliness:

Liberals worry about the people they don’t know; conservatives worry about the people they do know. Alternatively: Democrats like helping people in the abstract but aren’t neighborly, while Republicans love their neighbors but don’t give a damn about strangers. I’ve been turning over these pat phrases recently for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. They’ve been on my mind because I finally got around to NBC’s Parks and Recreation, catching up with the first three seasons in an embarrassingly short amount of time. The abstract vs. personal take on liberals and conservatives, it seems to me, is the show’s guiding principle, or central cliché.

But the show isn’t actually about the competing social styles of Leslie Knope, an optimistic and sometimes naive city administrator, and Ron Swanson, a skeptical libertarian, and what those styles say about their commitment to their politics. Instead, Parks and Recreation asks a more fundamental and bipartisan question: can government accomplish anything meaningful?

Red state-blue state issues and political dynamics occasionally crop up around the edges of the show, but they generally pop up when an outsider injects them into the department’s operations. When Leslie accidentally gay-marries a couple of penguins in an effort to promote the Pawnee Zoo, she’s profoundly not trying to make a point, and becomes a symbol mostly because she enjoys the social attention—it’s gay rights groups who make her a hero, and a family values advocate who calls for her resignation. When a councilman gets caught an affair, it has no real impact on the department’s operations, except to set off an arms race of embarrassing-past discoveries between coworkers. “All I care about is Councilman Dexhart’s policies,” Leslie insists, trying to stay above the fray. “Not about whether he was high on nitrous and cocaine during the cave sex.” On the national level, of course there are debates about conservation, resource use, and funding for public programming. But on a local level, there’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican stance on kids having fights with dog feces in the park or the existence of a Miss Pawnee competition. “That’s right. The head of the police is a ninth degree mason,” declares one of Leslie’s constituents at a town hall meeting. “But the music is so loud!” wails another, only to be followed by a plea to “Stop the graffiti, please. Please.”

That small-bore episode-by-episode focus on Pawnee’s problems clears the way for an ongoing exploration of the show’s real question: whether government can accomplish anything meaningful. Leslie and Ron represent the two extremes of the argument. Everyone else falls somewhere in between: after city planner Mark gets congratulated for a victory over a tenacious speed bump, he explains “I got it lowered two inches. Apparently, what I can achieve in government can literally be measured.” The fact that it takes Leslie forever to fill in the vacant pit behind Ann’s house is funny, but it’s also a good illustration of the challenges of getting something simple done—as is Leslie’s competition with Ron’s ex-wife, now the ruthless library director, over who gets to do something productive with the pit. Leslie may waste time mapping all the routes from a prank-prone teenager’s house to a statue he’s fond of defacing, but it’s emblematic of how hard she works on everything, nuisances or not.

But even though Leslie and Ron represent opposing visions of government, there’s something odd about Lapidos’s argument that their perspectives are actually competitive. Ron may be right about the fact that beef burgers beat schmancy turkey burgers any day, but he’s not really right about anything else. Parks and Recreation consistently argues that while Leslie’s enthusiasm may be overly intense, her devotion to public service is good for the community. Filling in the hole is a good idea, and not just because people in Pawnee tend to fall in it. Canceling a children’s concert might seem like an easy way to slash a budget, but it has a real impact on community families. The show’s second- and third-season budget-cutting arc ends up making the case for good government management rather than for smaller government: Ben Wyatt may be the only hero auditor in the history of television. And even Ron himself tends to acquiesce to Leslie’s view of government, fighting to save her park project, and even volunteering to give up his job to save hers. Leslie Knope’s cheerfulness turns out to be funny, but it’s Ron Swanson’s anti-government views that are Parks and Recreation‘s real joke.