When, in 1787, James Madison penned his defense of republican ideals in Federalist Paper #10, he could not have foreseen the ills of contemporary democracy. But long before there was Occupy Wall Street, before Obama ran on “Change We Can Believe In,” and before American institutions codified decisions like Citizens United into law, Madison did foresee the cooption of American democracy by powerful factions acting against the self-interest of the majority. Arguing against the smaller, more direct democratic ideals of Thomas Jefferson and instead for a delegated system of republicanism, Madison’s vision of the new union sought to reconcile large government with popular control of the republic. His vision of the union is an unwitting predecessor of both the massive expansions of federal government experienced in periods like the New Deal era – built largely on the foundation of bureaucratic institutions serving public needs – but it has also continuously affirmed the gradual withdrawal of this vast federal system from popular control.
It is this withdrawal that is at the heart of current critiques of American democracy. The delegation of governing powers to representatives — both directly elected, and eventually, appointed to bureaus and administrations during periods of governmental expansion — is founded on the core supposition that large publics can more effectively quell insurrection by zealous minorities. Where small groups may be swayed by localized self-interest, large organizations, for Madison, possess the invaluable power to broaden the scope of political conflict such that majority interest may truly be met without being held captive by radical factions. Yet such expansions have deadened participation among everyday citizens, opening up opportunities for increasing control of campaigns, media, and governing bodies to corporations and the wealthiest, most powerful individuals.
What’s alarming about all of this — aside from the unrelenting corrosion of public justice and political ethics, of course — is the lack of real, honest-to-god popular dialogue, like Madison’s, about how to reconcile delegation and participation. While enormous strides have been made in bringing up issues of injustice, movements like Occupy Wall Street have failed — intentionally, perhaps — to offer a political ideology that extends beyond the recognition of process-oriented problems and into the realm of remedies. But unless we are willing to forfeit our demands on government, many of which are provided by the vast system of Madisonian bureaucracies and agencies from the local to the federal level, reconciliation between these two dichotomous political necessities seems unavoidable. How can everyday citizens, living at the scale of local and state government, reaffirm participation as a core liberal principle when our demands on government compel it to grow ever larger?
We often look to pop culture to explicitly address — and reconcile — political issues; mainstream dialogue can, at its best, function as a kind of ad hoc working-through of some of the most complex issues we face. Through narrative, we call into question issues of identity and representation, social justice and political correctness. Too often, though, we forget to look to pop culture for other kinds of reconciliations, even those that threaten the very ideology upon which our nation is built. It’s surprising, because one doesn’t have to look much farther than NBC’s Thursday night prime-time lineup. NBC’s Parks and Recreation straddles, at times perilously, these disparate pillars of democratic government: set firmly in the intersection of the public bureaucracy and electoral life of its fictional town, Parks and Recreation both mirrors the battle for the future of republicanism writ large and, more subtly, offers its own answers to the fundamental contradictions we’ve inherited from Madison’s republic.
Parks and Recreation began, as I have written for this website, as an attempt to restore the sincerity of bureaucratic governance. As a faithful and dedicated public servant, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is precisely the kind of ideal delegate Madison envisioned: committed to the collective well-being of her constituents but unafraid to exercise her own judgment when popular whims threaten its cohesion, Leslie offers a glimpse of what contemporary republicanism might look like. Take, for instance, the season two episode “Sweetums,” in which Leslie organizes a public meeting to determine the future of the government-operated concession stands in Pawnee’s parks. When Sweetums, a local candy company, and, incidentally, the largest employer in town, elects to join a partnership with the city to sell its new “healthy” nutrition bars at the stands, Leslie takes it upon herself to educate the public on the bars’ unhealthy ingredients. “You know what, we did our job,” Leslie remarks when the townspeople ultimately vote to allow the partnership to go through. “We informed the public, that’s all we can do.” But Leslie’s contributions to Pawnee amount to more than education and deference to the public. As a bureaucrat, the Sweetums incident shows that she is both attuned to the public and willing to employ her own moral framework in a broad spectrum of political decisions.
Despite the show’s insistence on an infusion of morality into public service, though, the first three seasons of Parks and Recreation do not address some of the most powerful threats to democracy, and do not offer the kind of fully developed reconciliation we so desperately need. Notably missing from its political ideology in these seasons is electoral politics — what Madison called “periodic appeals to the public” — that define a just republican system. But this season (the show’s fourth) has taken that on in full force, including a full-on debate of corporate influence, public opinion, and the never-ending compromises that come with making decisions in a democracy. Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, Leslie is this season a candidate in Pawnee’s contentious city council election, running against a Sweetums heir, Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd). Suddenly, and with surprising efficiency, Parks and Recreation has attempted through the city council race to integrate Leslie’s ethics as a public delegate within the larger framework of participatory democracy.
On one hand, it is easy to read Pawnee’s election as a microcosm of our national politics: Leslie’s campaign, fighting to be heard through the din of Newport’s negative TV ads and professional political consultants, indeed seems to be more indicative of the hype surrounding national primary processes than a local election. Insofar as the show portrays a digestible version of a complex national dilemma, then, Parks and Recreation holds up a critical mirror to the reality of our political process. By attempting to safeguard against radical minority factions, the show posits, Madison’s vision of representative government has instead devolved into a system by which manipulation can in fact hold public opinion hostage. This has never been more clear than in last week’s episode, “The Debate,” in which Leslie and Newport go head-to-head in a public debate. Newport’s trump card, in a predictable move, is a threat to outsource Sweetums manufacturing — essentially flattening Pawnee’s fragile economy — to which Leslie responds:
I am very angry. I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. Corporations are not allowed to dictate what a city needs. That power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to think that it belongs to them. I love this town, and when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly. And if I push too hard, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough. This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you — I’m not going anywhere.
It’s a remarkable speech for a few reasons. If Parks and Recreation is positioning itself as a kind of parable for national politics, its clear distinction between the parameters of corporate and public power, so blurred in today’s laws and practices, makes it painfully obvious that much of what we consider commonplace in today’s political scene is not just morally unsound, but truly anti-republican and anti-democratic. It echoes Madison’s enlightened delegate sensibility while also promoting a clear imperative for public participation, and it is a reconciliation in the sense that Leslie has finally found a way to incorporate her keen sensibility as a public servant into her growing arsenal of political tactics. Whereas Leslie the bureaucrat can take matters into her own hands, largely without fear of public opinion, Leslie the city council candidate must carefully juggle the demands of both easily manipulated public opinion and her own sense of what’s best for the town. Her recognition of popular control over her actions –– “that power belongs to the people” –– is here juxtaposed with her fierce idealism –– “if I come on strong, it’s because things aren’t moving fast enough” in a true assertion of republican ideals.
While her remarks are certainly apropos in light of the coming national election, though, Leslie’s reconciliation between delegation and participation come in the package of local politics. And that’s not just because local politics are easier to understand; rather, her speech asserts a strong affiliation for localized reconciliation in a way that Madison never envisioned. If we are to find balance between accountability and progressivism in governance, it contends, it must start in our homes, in our communities, and in our cities and towns. If we are threatened not just by radical factions but by manipulation from national and global powers, then the answer lies in reaffirming both the authenticity and the power of the local experience. And if we are to understand and articulate our demands to government, we must begin by asserting an ideal relationship between public servants and their constituents at home.
Parks and Recreation has its limitations, of course. It is, after all, only a TV show, and its potential for establishing realistic political dilemmas is constrained (in a recent episode, Leslie has to heavy-handedly choose between cutting the Parks’ budget, firing her friend Ann, or closing an animal shelter to deal with a budget problem). But writing off pop culture as unable to package and articulate complex issues of political ideology would be to further isolate ourselves from popular discourse about what we can, and should, expect from our own governance. And a show like Parks and Recreation, which offers specific and unique answers to some of our most timely political issues, can supplement and codify a new kind of ideology.