Muresianu: Ben Wyatt and the Republicanism of Parks and Rec

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019


When one talks about the politics of the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” Ron Swanson, the irascible libertarian head of the Parks and Rec department, first comes to mind. Conservative commentators have discussed him as a positive, sympathetic portrayal of someone on the political right in contrast to, say, the mockery of The Colbert Report. However, while Swanson’s libertarian beliefs are not vilified on the show, they act more as a charming punchline than a genuine depiction. The real sympathetic portrayal of conservative governance in Parks and Rec is not Ron Swanson but rather the dorky, methodical Ben Wyatt.

Ben Wyatt is introduced at the end of Season 2 when the fictional city of Pawnee is facing a budget crisis, and is sent by the state government to sort out the budget woes. That means making difficult choices and cutting a lot of government spending. Leslie Knope, an avowed Democrat, bristles at Wyatt’s cold approach, initially despising him. However, Wyatt explains that it’s not his, but instead the city government’s, fault for pushing the city to bankruptcy, and that he has to make these spending cuts. Furthermore, he helps fund one of the programs he had to cancel out of his own pocket, showing that he’s not a callous human icicle. Wyatt fairly represents conservative arguments in a sympathetic and kind, yet serious, character.

Unlike Leslie Knope or the aforementioned Swanson, Ben Wyatt does not have an explicitly defined political affiliation. However, when considered in the context of the time in which the show aired, Ben Wyatt is a clear avatar of the Romney-Ryan Republican Party of the early 2010s. Parks and Rec’s second and third seasons aired around 2009-2010, when the Tea Party— with its initial focus on balanced budgets—was growing. Paul Ryan, a young congressman, was rising in prominence as an advocate of significant reforms to put the US government on a much more fiscally sustainable path. Ryan was vilified at the time as a vampire who wanted to bleed the federal government dry and push old ladies off cliffs. Wyatt’s agenda and rhetoric as a state budget auditor are remarkably similar to those of Paul Ryan in the early twenty-tens.

Also, the two have the same widow’s peak.

Same energy.

Wyatt also parallels other member of the GOP’s 2012 presidential ticket. Early in Season 3, as Pawnee’s citizenry are furious with the cuts to services, Ben Wyatt receives the blame. One prominent criticism leveled against him is that almost every city Wyatt visited as auditor went bankrupt. After a series of gaffe-prone interviews, he finally succeeds in explaining that it’s his job to go to struggling towns and try to turn them around, so it makes sense that most of the towns he went to went bankrupt; all of them would have gone bankrupt if it wasn’t for his help.

A hostile media focused on gaffes? A track record of taking charge of troubled enterprises? Remind you of anyone else from the 2012 presidential campaign?

 

Throughout both the primaries and general election, one of the main smears against the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was his career in private equity and venture capital, particularly his work in “distressed financing“: investing in struggling companies and trying to turn them around. Even conservative Texas governor Rick Perry called Romney a “vulture capitalist,” going from company to company and stripping them bare for profit before they closed. However, like Ben Wyatt, Romney came to places that were already in dire straits, and it was his job to make the best of the bad situation, hopefully sustaining the business for long-term success.

Perhaps most importantly, Ben Wyatt tried to build Ice Town, a winter sports complex, as mayor of Partridge, Minnesota, and Mitt Romney managed the 2002 Winter Olympics. Can’t possibly be a coincidence.

In the world of politics or politics-adjacent television, liberal ideas tend to reign supreme. The unapologetically propagandistic works of Aaron Sorkin are perfect examples: from The American President to The West Wing to Newsroom. Similarly, even though the nefarious Frank Underwood is nominally a Democrat on House of Cards, one of his core agenda items is privatizing Social Security. Thanks to the preponderance of liberal narratives in television shows, conservatives have thrown their support behind shows led by wackjobs. Fortunately, underneath Ron Swanson’s arguments for anarcho-capitalism, Parks and Recreation quietly includes the case for fiscally responsible, center-right governance through Ben Wyatt.

 

Alex Muresianu is a member of the Tufts University Class of 2021. He has written on his personal blog for over four years. He is a longtime history buff and aspiring policy wonk, with a strong passion for the details of healthcare and tax policy.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Alex Muresianu

Tufts University

Alex Muresianu is a member of the Tufts University Class of 2021. He has written on his personal blog for over four years. He is a longtime history buff and aspiring policy wonk, with a strong passion for the details of healthcare and tax policy.

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