US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

The last week witnessed two major events in political television: the series finale of the beloved NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” and the season premiere of the Netflix melodrama “House of Cards.” No two shows could be more dissimilar in their worldviews. The sunny optimism of "Parks and Rec" assured viewers that passionate, principled people can improve the lives of the people around them, and that government works, whether filling a pothole, fixing a swing or turning a pit into a park. "House of Cards" counters that politics is power, and that sentimentality is a weakness to be exploited on the way to getting things done.

Though polar opposites, the two shows offer two versions of liberal wish fulfillment well-suited to a Democratic Party transitioning from the Obama to the Clinton era. "Parks and Rec" never lost the Obama-like belief in government powered by goodwill and consensus. But the obstructionism of the Obama years made this vision seem fantastical, stoking a desire for hard-headed partisans who would get things done. Enter Frank and Claire Underwood, the "House of Cards" power couple that often seems like the right-wing fever-dream version of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Power-hungry and poll-tested, manipulative and murderous, they nearly always get what they want.

"Parks and Rec’s" central character, Leslie Knope, never stopped believing that no matter how different their values, people could find common ground and work together. Even her boss, Ron Swanson, a devoted libertarian whose ideal form of government is “one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke,” supported her efforts to make life in Pawnee, Indiana, better. The series finale showed Swanson, following Knope’s advice, retiring from the private sector and returning to public service as the superintendent of a national park.

A tea partier finding his ultimate purpose in government service? Knope clearly could do anything.

"Parks and Rec" embodied a “brilliant, confident liberalism,” as the Washington Post put it. It was wish fulfillment for the age of Obama, who more than a decade later is still defined by the 2004 speech in which he posed the question, “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?” For Obama, as for Knope, the answer was always hope.

If Knope was the political superhero of optimistic liberalism, the Underwoods are its anti-heroes. Ruthless and manipulative, the Underwoods see self-sacrifice and public-mindedness in utilitarian terms, chits to be cashed in for power. The people drawn into their orbit function the same way, pawns sacrificed on the route to victory. It is a bleak portrait of politics as a realm of cynics, liars and thieves. Knope would have been chucked in front of a train in the first episode.

That hardly sounds like wish fulfillment. But anti-heroes tap into some of our deepest desires. The meth-peddling Walter White of “Breaking Bad” may not be an ideal role model, but he represented an escape from debt-ridden white-collar drudgery, an attempt to wrest control from his bosses, his family, and even death itself. The Underwoods are the same. No obstacle is too formidable. Need a quorum for a vote? Have Capitol police arrest senators and haul them into the chamber. Congressional gridlock? Enact your agenda and let the courts sort it out. For liberals who bemoan Obama’s inaction in the face of obstruction, the Underwoods offer an appealing alternative.

So does Hillary Clinton. In 2008, she insisted Obama’s vision represented not the audacity but the naivete of hope. “I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing,” she said during the primaries. “But I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be.”

After the election, when the tea party reared up and the president backed down, Democrats began pining for Clintonian combativeness. They clamored for Clinton after the 2011 debt-ceiling debacle, arguing “Obama has no spine” and “Hillary is tougher.” The image of a tough-as-nails Clinton who could crush Republican obstructionism has stuck, becoming for many a more attractive option than Obama’s seemingly futile calls for bipartisanship. Knopes are nice, but Underwoods get things done.

The Obama 2008 campaign embodied the promise of "Parks and Rec": that people could overcome political differences to improve their communities and their country. It is a belief the president has held to even as six years of polarization and political brinksmanship seemed to prove him wrong. Earlier this year in his State of the Union, Obama recalled his vision of a united America, and how pundits had deemed it “misguided” and “naive.” “I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong,” Obama Knope-ishly insisted. “I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long.”

Clinton recently echoed this optimistic vision. Addressing a women’s conference in Silicon Valley last week, she said that if she runs for president, her campaign will work to “bring people from right, left, red, blue, [and] get them into a nice, warm, purple space where everybody is talking and where we're actually trying to solve problems.” Nice, warm, purple spaces sound nice enough, but they also sound far more poll-tested than deeply felt. Though she and Leslie Knope seem to share the same goal — to be the first woman president of the United States — Clinton’s nomination would represent the eclipse, not the arrival, of "Parks and Rec’s" consensus-driven liberalism.

This article was originally published at the US News & World Report