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Learning civility from ‘Parks and Rec’

| Friday, October 9, 2020

Jackie Junco | The Observer

The state of bipartisan political relations in this country is dire, to say the very least. Anyone who had the pleasure of witnessing last week’s mudslinging presidential debate knows that to be true. The disrespect that tends to abound in the public sphere — between the men and women who are supposed to be working together for the good of the state — can be discouraging to those of us who participate in the democratic process through voting, only to see those we have elected further cementing the partisan split.

It is easy to resign ourselves to this lack of civility, both on Capitol Hill and in our own lives and to assume that hatred and disrespect must be the default when that’s all we see represented in the media. But this is not our only option. Civility — and even genuine friendship, I think — can still be achieved. How, you might ask, should we go about forming and maintaining these friendships? Watching “Parks and Recreation” might be a start.

The show’s depiction of Ron and Leslie’s relationship seems to provide a model for true dialogue between people of different political persuasions. Sometimes (not often) one or the other will soften on a particular view or even begin to see things differently. Mostly, though, the two just listen to one another without actively trying to change each other’s minds — and never, to my knowledge, does one call the other bigoted or ignorant for the things they hold to be true. Ron and Leslie spend more time eating waffles at J.J.’s Diner than dwelling on their vastly disparate conceptions of taxation, government spending and the ideal involvement of the State in its citizens’ lives. Both recognize that such things are part of their identities, sure, but Ron knows that Leslie is more than a big-government bureaucrat, and Leslie knows that Ron is more than an anti-tax curmudgeon.

In fact, the two often balance each other out. Without Ron there to rein in Leslie’s elaborate, ambitious projects, she would probably run herself — and her department— into the ground. And despite the fact that his first act as city planner would be to eliminate all of the departments (including the Parks department), Ron recognizes how brilliant, driven and compassionate Leslie is; he even supports her campaign for city council because he knows her immense capability and respects her strength of conviction (even though, of course, he will probably disagree with almost every action she takes while on the council).

For her part, Leslie accepts Ron’s belief in small government without accusing him of being callous, cruel or disinterested in others’ well-being. She even used his disdain for government spending to her advantage, bringing him along to meetings where budgets are discussed so that he can fight for other departments’ funding to be slashed. More broadly, the show does a rather impressive job of keeping Ron from becoming a caricature. While there are some jokes made about the extreme nature of his anti-government stance — which is especially funny, given that he works for the city of Pawnee — the character himself never becomes a joke, nor, I think, does his broader political stance. In one episode, he explains libertarianism to a grade schooler on a field trip (and is allowed to sound engaging and coherent as he does so); in another, he does the same for Andy, making sure to assert that libertarianism is neither a left nor a right-wing persuasion.

This last point about libertarianism not falling anywhere on the conventional political spectrum seems especially important. In fact, perhaps the most noteworthy thing “Parks and Rec” does with its presentation of Leslie, Ron and their friendship is to show that political partisanship does not have to be black and white. Ron believes in small government, yes, but he is also a feminist who officiates a gay wedding. He is not a monstrous lover of capitalism. He is a human being with a complicated, multifaceted worldview. The show seems to be suggesting, then, that people with strong political philosophies are more than just caricatures. If you talk to people, they can surprise you. Political views are only one facet of a person’s identity, and the presence of diverse views can actually be an asset. This kind of diversity keeps your world from becoming an echo chamber, and it allows you both to challenge, reevaluate and strengthen your own convictions.

All of this raises the question: Is “Parks and Rec” being overly idealistic? Does it fall into the “West Wing” trap of imagining government officials as being more virtuous than they really are? Is it presenting a version of political discourse that we want to exist rather than one that actually can? Maybe. Maybe it’s not as easy to make friends with those of different political persuasions as Ron and Leslie make it seem. One might even say that Leslie and Ron are Platonic ideals, rather than real people — allowed to be somewhat complex, but never in a way that compromises their fundamental, inoffensive goodness. That may all be true, at least to some extent. But the show’s writers seem to be saying that as long as you can find one thing in common — be it a common love of breakfast food or of a miniature horse named Lil’ Sebastian — then all the rest should be possible.

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