Holzer: From Washington to Pawnee

What “Parks and Recreation” teaches about politics today.

by Emory Holzer | 2/7/19 2:10am

 I have no qualms about claiming that “Parks and Recreation” is the best sitcom of the decade. Those who know me are certainly unsurprised by this claim. If my obsession with this show was not brought up in our first conversation, I have certainly quoted, referenced or forced you to watch at least one of my favorite scenes. “Parks” is my go-to pick-me-up — Andy’s gleeful silliness is contagious. “Parks and Rec” is my go-to for motivation — Leslie Knope’s boundless determination is enough to inspire anyone to do their homework. And it’s definitely my go-to for a laugh — the different characters that make up Pawnee, Indiana are hysterical. Basically, “Parks and Rec” is my go-to any day, any time.

I have always credited “Parks and Recreation” for fostering my interest in politics. Yet lately, I have also attributed my outlook on politics to the show. When I started watching the show, politics was nothing more than a conversation my parents occasionally had at the dinner table. Politics was a foreign concept, something I knew was important but did not yet understand. What I did understand, though, were the truly special characters, with whom I quickly fell in love. 

Watching the show for the first time, I saw civil servants dedicated to improving their communities. The Pawnee Parks Department is a motivated, albeit slightly dysfunctional, family of co-workers who share a common mission of improving the town through its leisure spaces. This team often falls between Leslie, a staunch liberal bent on big government to provide the best goods and services to Pawnee, and Ron Swanson, a steadfast libertarian who is not shy about his intention to “walk deeper into the belly of the beast ... to further limit reckless government spending.”

In the episode “Soda Tax,” Leslie discovers that Ron initially tried to fire her because of her bullheadedness. But he ultimately withdraws his requests for termination because as he says “I’d rather work with a person of conviction than a wishy-washy kiss ass.” Although they disagree on most policies and directions for the department, Ron and Leslie respect each other’s opinions. And, more importantly, they respect that they believe differently. Neither are right or wrong; both are equally confident and valid in their ideas. But ultimately their ideas — and this has become lost in politics today — are just ideas. And unlike answers, which can be correct or incorrect, ideas are subjective. Ron and Leslie both desire the same — an improved town for their generation and for generations to come. But they foresee different means of achieving this future. They will fight like hell for their respective opinions, but when it is all said and done and someone — or no one — has won, they will have respected the fight. And afterwards, they will probably go to JJ’s Diner for some breakfast food because, according to Ron Swanson, “there has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.”

The familial, collaborative relationship between Leslie and Ron — people who although vehemently disagree with each other, but also share respect for each other — struck me as normal the first time I watched the show. As I learned more about politics, I realized that this acceptance of ideological differences is all but nonexistent outside the show. In the face of politics today, this relationship reads as a joke — but not a funny one. It stings like a joke in bad taste, meant to highlight a bitter reality.

Politics today seem to be, on all fronts, a rallying cry of hate. Politics divides communities, families and classrooms, leaving a wake of animosity in its path. A political stance can form an unsurmountable barrier between strangers and between friends. With such rampant animosity in the political system, it seems that meaningful, bipartisan policy is impossible. Yet this is not because of the policy itself. Rather, the animosity itself between the parties prevents their collaboration. Nothing highlights this more than the recent government shutdown, which exposes the refusal to cooperate between members of both parties. 

Watch “Parks and Recreation” and enjoy the brilliant characters, the amazing world the creators built and some of the most cheerfully funny television of this generation. But also take away the idea that two people diametrically opposed to each other’s ideas can still be friends. Two people with completely different political views can root for each other and work together to achieve common goals. Build a friendship with someone who holds different political beliefs. Learn and understand why they hold those beliefs. After all, the party line was created to divide. If both sides can work together, inspired by the friendship of Leslie and Ron, maybe change will be reflected in Washington. Maybe society could channel the energy it wastes on hate into meaningful positive action. Maybe we could build each other up, respecting and championing the diversity of opinions, rather than tear people down. As Leslie Knope says, “Positive is always better than negative.”