The pantheon of modern Liberal Media (not be confused with its determiner-equipped cousin) is vast; besides the obvious entries of nearly any television show featuring a woman or PoC protagonist, one can find followers of Literally Any Genre Program, which invariably is woke because it is possible to Read main characters as secretly being gay for each other in extremely specific ways where the Succession of Muhammmed is paper or plastic compared to the vitriol surrounding whose imaginary penis goes where.
Yet there are higher orders of media beyond this. In the realm of fantasy, there is Harry Potter, which despite its attenuated "racism is bad" message and complete lack of otherwise traditionally discernible politics has become a lingua franca among liberal-millenial discussions of politics; Donald Trump is not now an idiot exemplar of the excesses of capitalism or anything else, but rather a bad snake wizard. We also have Game of Thrones and its Khaleesi, inbred murderous hereditary monarch yet shibboleth of liberal discussion, as a result of her freeing pretend slaves (which, admittedly, is more liberal than her analogue holding real ones.) Exemplar headline: "Jessica Chastain Wins Hillary Clinton Memes with Daenerys and Dragon."
But in lower-fantasy settings we get purer ideology. There are the two Aaron Sorkin series "The West Wing" and "The Newsroom," which have recently come into new analysis of their import, style, and fundamental hollowness, but less hay has been made of another program that shaped and reflected liberal imagination: Parks and Recreation.
Parks and Recreation was an Office-style sitcom that ran on NBC for 7 seasons and followed the employees of the municipal parks department of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana. The main character of Leslie Knope, portrayed by Amy Poehler, has been ceaselessly compared to Hillary Clinton (exemplar headline: "Don't like Hillary Clinton? You need to watch Parks And Recreation"). Poehler wrote in-character denouncing Donald Trump, much to the joy of liberal-leaning television bloggers and their need to churn out one less story a day for no money. Hillary even met with "Knope" on the campaign trail, and according to that article, "Clinton has long shown interest in the show, emailing an aide in 2010 asking for the NBC sitcom's broadcast time." The show has even been cited by ThinkProgress as an example of why government works. And as a socialist, I believe government can work, but not for the reasons delineated by Parks and Recreation.
Parks and Rec is not a bad program on technical merits. It is funny and has good comedic actors in it. But it is also a sitcom, and tonally is as saccharine a sitcom as any very special episode of "Blossom." This presents our first and most systemic problem. Conflicts can be created for the story, but generally are completely resolved with everyone happy within 22 minutes. For example, Leslie's counterpart, the libertarian and comically manly Ron Swanson, may be upset that all of his boy scouts want to join Leslie's girl scout troupe, but in the end the boys are allowed to join and new tough kids want to join Ron's authentic outdoorsy club. Another episode might revolve around Leslie butting heads with the budget committee over funding for some parks project, only to get what she wants via hard work and the fundamental decency of those around her.
Whatever this is, it isn't politics. In reality, politics is conflict, between opposing and often incompatible material interests, in its simplest terms, a fight over who gets what. This is inherently in contradiction with a format in which conflicts, when they exist, are often misunderstandings in which everyone shortly comes away happy thanks to the tireless efforts of a chipper uberfrau like Leslie Knope. Despite its political bent, or perhaps because of it, class antagonism exists as much in this show as the Iran-Iraq war exists in "Full House." An ongoing plotline for a season is that a river is filled with garbage and the city has no money to do anything about it, so Leslie and volunteers do it themselves. On its face, this is fine, the kind of low-level community action that people engage in to improve their surroundings. But the question of why the city has no money is never explored, and the reason the river is dirty isn't that some factory is dumping into it, but rather in line with liberal misanthropy, that average schlubs are trekking out into nowhere to dump their trash in it. Again analysis is not forthcoming - does this city have a problem with its trash service? Why? In later seasons there is mention of the global banking crisis affecting the city, which might explain its strapped budget, but never any blame laid.
Talking about the lack of any analysis might be considered an unfair criticism, and by the same token it might be said that it's unfair to look at just how low the stakes are here. This is, after all, just a comedy show about small-town folks, and even the bigger stuff is mostly just about the operation of a city parks department. But that is the line through all of these liberal-beloved media properties: even in their wildest dreams they don't change anything.
Even in the overtly fantastical this is true. Harry Potter defeats the bad guy and then becomes a cop; wizard society remains largely the same, and mundane society does not notice anything happened at all. In "The Newsroom," the characters Cut Through The Bullshit to do the news, but the world does not change for their efforts. Even in "The West Wing," which sees idealized brilliant liberals controlling the White House for eight years of constantly owning Republicans, the signature achievement of the administration is a vague resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, intercut with pushes to implement Necessary Austerity and make deals to put Republicans on the Supreme Court, the consequences of which on peoples' lives are never seen or mentioned.
In Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope's signature achievement was planning a successful Harvest Festival. Yes, the kind of shit that you go to for an hour on a Sunday to get your kids out of the house is talked about as legendary, referenced years later, something she worries she'll never top. The festival was also built on the site of a massacre of Native Americans, which understandably displeases a tribal leader, but not so much that at the end of the episode he doesn't literally give his blessing in exchange for a tent about Indian History that the slovenly morons of the town were sure to hurriedly filter by with eyes averted.
The idiocy of the residents of the town is a running gag. This could be considered punching down, but frankly, the kind of people who attend local government forums do in fact tend to be crackpot dimwits, so we might be allowed to ignore this, except for one thing: the election plotline and its aftermath.
Leslie runs for a vacant seat in the Pawnee city council, against a couple of comical cranks and her real competition, the wealthy Dubya failson idiot Bobby Newport, played by Paul Rudd, and his amoral Jim Messina political bagwoman, played by Kathryn Hahn. This is high electoral drama without any bearing on real-world small-town city council races, which are more likely to have two anonymous owners of competing auto parts stores duking it out for the prize of a few hundred votes, but in this show there are weekly polls, debates, scandals, press hitpieces, etc. At that debate, to a packed house, Newport announces that if Leslie is elected his family's business, the town's biggest employer, will have to move to Mexico. How does Leslie pull out the win from this threat? You haven't watched enough liberal TV if you really need to ask: of course, obviously, by dropping a sickass monologue that owns him. And in it, not any threat of her own of preventing the move, but talking about how mad she is about it.
She of course goes on to win the election, and a previously heartwarming moment in which Ben, her boyfriend and campaign manager, reveals he never wrote her a concession speech is made uncomfortable with the modern context of Hillary Clinton's embarrassing disappearance on election night. And as is in line with liberal Bush revisionism, Bobby Newport is revealed to be a well-intentioned dipshit, despite his threat to emiserate thousands to win a petty city council election, and his reptillian campaign manager shrugs and her career continues without incident.
But I mentioned the townsfolk earlier. Once in power, Leslie Knope has several signature achievements. First is a scandal involving bribery to keep her relationship a secret. Next, banning large servings of soda because Pawnee is fat. Then accidentally giving taxpayer funds to an adult video store. And finally bailing out and filibustering in favor of the rich profligate snobs of Pawnee's Shelbyville equivalent. And despite the extremely germane fact that this scandal-ridden, rich-dickhead-empowering local city councilor with all the worst impulses of paternalist liberalism had all the best intentions, it isn't long before the irrational, Frankensteinian peasant-strawmen drool out their incoherent criticisms of her and call a recall election in which she is cruelly removed from power. This is perhaps the only low point an episode ended on.
But wait! Although it isn't framed in this way, the consequences of her recall are that reality briefly intersects with the program as Leslie's loss becomes her opportunity to fail upwards. A Man From The Government offers her the opportunity to work for the National Parks Service, based on the strength of the Harvest Festival (must have been an amazing corn maze) and the ludicrously overwrought thousand-page proposals she is always sending in. After a timeskip, she ends up running the midwestern division of the national parks service, and in an epilogue, she becomes the Governor of Indiana, her now-husband Ben becomes a Congressman, and it's implied that one of them becomes President of the United States.
Why is this such a touchstone among liberals?
In many ways, the liberal blogosphere is right: Leslie Knope is Hillary Clinton. They speak primarily in support of their smartness and hard work and dreams, not any ideology they possess. In the last episode, the list of why the DNC is interested in backing Leslie's bid for governor is indistinguishable from many of Hillary's arguments for herself: she is from here, she has dreamed of this since kindergarten, and she is Supremely Qualified (in this case, from running a municipal parks department, being a city counselor for less than a year, and being a mid-level apparatchik in the parks service.) Leslie lacks the latter's bloodless foreign policy and affirmative embrace of neoliberalism, but beyond that their ideology is a shared a belief in the system, a pale sense that government can do good, and a sort of limp identitarian feminism based on worship of powerful women. And that last is really the key to understanding this show and the role it reflects in our politics.
As they say someone is a comedian's comedian, Leslie Knope is a fanboy's fanboy. To begin I would be remiss to not mention that Amy Poehler's background is Saturday Night Live, a program with the ratings of a mid-level youtube series, except less funny, yet given hugely distorted importance due to its connections to celebrities and institutional pedigree of churning out perhaps half a dozen genuinely funny people over 40 years. Poehler's origin, in short, is an improv nerd with dreams of the big time suddenly brought into the starfucking big leagues to gawk at and schmooze with millionaire movie stars, and this colors the character of Leslie Knope. Knope worships Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt not because of anything specific they did or really any beliefs they had, but rather because they were strong, famous women - celebrities in politics instead of film. Over the course of the show she has the chance to meet, fawn and hyperventilate over multiple political figures, including Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, and Corey Booker. Perennial warmonger and liberal darling John McCain even makes a cameo.
Liberalism is technocracy is fanboyism. They are indivisible, consubstantial parts of the same whole. Liberalism believes that the way to good government is to get the best and smartest people in power, the notion that government fails not because of ideology and capital asserting itself but rather because of dummies is technocracy, and this requires and engenders the most breathless, wall-eyed fanboyism this site of a comic book movie messageboard. Obviously we remember all the Obama fanboys, but you could at least make the excuse that he had charisma and oratory. But then we must remember the deference to the genius of the Federal Reserve guys who atomized the planet, or Kissinger, or McCain, or Petraeus, and how liberals turned on a Lego Coin about how James Comey is Good Now, or the thinkpieces that appeared on the schedule of a Japanese train about how Awesome is Tim Kaine, previously a virtually anonymous mediocrity with politics simultaneously garbage and effortlessly bland like a diaper full of gruel (and we can all agree was an excelent pick because if the primary demonstrated anything it's that Donald Trump's main weakness is bland white guys whose main thing is they can speak some Spanish.) Ur-Wonks like Ezra Klein even write hagiography about the intelligence of goblinoids like Paul Ryan as the latter works to painfully kill thousands of Americans per month.
But the reality isn't that the people who oppose your ideas are idiots. They often are, but in either case, Upton Sinclair did not say "it is difficult to convince a man to understand something, when his idiocy prevents him from understanding it." It was the paycheck, the material concern, that causes this difficulty - and in politics, it is the relationship between the official and power. The tumblr teens make ninja turtles Woke by imagining relationships; liberals make their reality comprehensible by ignoring them. Their Senator doesn't vote for war because he gets money from defense contractors, but because he needs a Leslie Knope to walk in bearing the right charts and defeat him in a conversation they wrote.