No currently airing television show highlights the tedium and frustrations of government bureaucracy with comedic ease quite like NBC’s Parks and Recreation. The show’s popularity and comic brilliance is assuring to viewers, especially those who double as voting citizens, that government officials like the Deputy Parks Director of the Pawnee Parks Department, Leslie Knope, exist. Sadly, however, it seems characters like Knope only occupy in the fictional sphere.
Leslie Knope, played by Saturday Night Live vet Amy Poehler, is a firecracker of a female lead. As Deputy Parks Director, she works under steak-loving man-among-men Ron Swanson, who displays his fiercely libertarian political beliefs by doing absolutely nothing. But that’s the way she likes to do it—all on her own, with obsessive and maniacal passion.
While her character is unrealistic and cheesy, Knope is endearing in the deep and genuine love that she feels for her city and its people. She takes her role as a government employee with the seriousness and severity of a Supreme Court justice. Her dedication derives from a belief that the government should work for the people and ultimately support them in all public endeavors. This kind of genuine passion and belief doesn’t seem to exist in the (real) public political sphere. And yet, here is someone who is intelligent, with great ideas and the obsessive compulsion to see them through, in a parks department in rural Indiana.
Now in their fourth season, the characters of Parks and Rec are gearing up for a city council race, where they attempt to run a mishap-ridden campaign for candidate Knope. It is hard not to watch the show and see the parallels, with small town flair, to the idiocies and absurdities that have been occurring on the national stage with the Republican primaries. Parodying Mitt Romney, Paul Rudd guest stars as Bobby Newport, the spoiled rich heir to a candy empire who decides to run against Leslie for City Council. He represents everything Leslie is not—out-of-touch, entitled, unintelligent, and with little to no regard for the great city and people of Pawnee. Not to imply that the Republican candidates are unintelligent or unfit, but, clearly, there are some out-of-touch and confusing elements circling the political sphere.
Despite his shortcomings, Rudd’s character has clear advantages—a widely-known name, the financial backing that his opponent doesn’t have, and nothing on the line if he loses. Despite his clear lead, Leslie still remains adamant against a smear campaign, despite what everyone on her campaign committee tells her. And, sadly, that is why this is fiction.
To pacify her staunch insistence on running a clean campaign, her campaign manager instead creates an ad from a home video that Leslie made when she was ten years old. In the clip, she makes a case for why she is running for City Council—to make Pawnee an even better place than she thinks it already is, with safer streets and “a more progressive tax on residential properties.”
This speaks to the kid in all of us, who once thought that politics was about fighting for what we believed in and doing what was best for a city, country, and its people. Now, I can only equate politics to subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) manipulation for votes and distasteful hunger for power. While Leslie Knope is, at times, tactless, naïve, and a little too selfless, she has nothing but the best intentions in her role within the government.
As a government major, I have been asked over and over what I want to do with my degree. I mostly give the snide reply that my government major has taught me that I want absolutely nothing to do with the government. While this is more likely a response to the tiresome nature of that question, I am fairly certain I do not have the tenacity, patience, and ultimate faith in public work that someone like Leslie Knope does.
As for my role as a voting citizen, it may seem naïve and hopeless to ask for a candidate like Leslie Knope. God knows, she is just as nuts as those politicians we see out there, but at least she is the right kind of nuts. That’s why I’m voting Knope 2012.