Hate Thy Neighbor
The politics of Parks and Recreation.
Leslie's boss, Ron (Nick Offerman), is almost perfectly her opposite in terms of how he allots his social energy. A staunch libertarian, Ron's "idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he's allowed to decide is who to nuke." Accordingly, Ron tries to ensure that the Parks department does very little—NBC's City of Pawnee website notes that he has closed many unnecessary recreational spaces during his tenure, including public drinking fountains—and he minimizes his contact with the citizenry. So, for example, when a new town policy requires public officials to deal more directly with their constituents, Ron hires the apathetic April (Aubrey Plaza) as a screen. It's her job to make sure that no one gets through the obstacle of her terrible phone-and-scheduling skills.
Helping the anonymous hordes of Pawnee is anathema to Ron. When it comes to his friends and co-workers, however, he's a mensch—a sweetheart, even. Down with government; up with people. Yes, he sometimes loses his patience with Jerry (Jim O'Heir), the office imbecile, and he dates Tom's (Aziz Ansari) ex-wife, even though Tom still has feelings for her. Generally, though, he's a more considerate person than the good-government Leslie Knope. He gives Leslie a wide berth to do what she pleases even though he disagrees with her politics, and he always supports her. When he learns that state auditors plan to fire her, for instance, he offers up his own job instead. He's also an excellent judge of character, recognizing that Leslie's boyfriend Justin (Justin Theroux) is a "tourist" who cares primarily about gathering outrageous stories. And he's attuned to the emotional states of the people around him, filling the role of office parent, as when he advises April and Andy (Chris Pratt) about their relationship. (See especially the episodes "94 Meetings," in which Ron visits April at her parents' house and makes clear that Andy cares for her, and "Media Blitz," in which he convinces April not to string Andy along.)
These personality sketches are rough, and so incomplete—Leslie can be nice, Ron can be mean, etc. Yet Leslie regularly forgets the maxim that charity starts at home, and just as often Ron remembers it. I contacted series co-creator Mike Schur to see if the show's adherence to the liberal-conservative aphorism was intentional, and Schur said that it was not. He added that the most oft-cited saying in the writers' room is "when people want a mom, they vote liberal, and when they want a dad, they vote conservative."
Schur did say, though, that the "cracks in [Leslie and Ron's] armor"—meaning the apparent contradiction between the characters' political beliefs and day-to-day behavior—are deliberate. "Ron can talk all he wants about how he doesn't care about other people, but he was instrumental in April and Andy getting back together," Schur told me. "And Leslie can extol the virtues of government all she wants, but when she's confronted by some rude socialists from Venezuela, she briefly becomes a neo-con."
Whether we describe Leslie and Ron as "mom and dad" or "clueless-liberal and buddy-conservative," Parks and Recreation does not endorse one disposition over the other. In remaining silent on which character has the right priorities, perhaps the show is arguing that our capacity to care about other people isn't limitless. We end up rationing our reserves—some of us lavish our attention on neighbors, while others reserve their do-gooding for the faceless masses. It's also possible that Parks and Recreation simply does not care about politics, and that the contrast in evidence here is purely a narrative contrivance. If every character espoused the same beliefs, the show would be dreadfully boring.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.
Photo of Poehler by Ron Tom/NBC. Photo of Offerman by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC.