In The Simpsons’ “Bart Gets An Elephant,” the bosses at radio station KBBL threaten ultra-hacky morning-zoo DJs Bill and Marty with a mechanical replacement: The DJ 3000. The machine parrots clichéd drivel like “Hot dog! We have a weiner!”, which is already enough to render its human counterparts utterly useless. If that weren’t enough, it also provides a hot political take: “Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.”
In the 22 years since the DJ 3000 weighed in on the legislative branch, its opinion has been quoted dozens of times. After all, no matter what your personal political leanings are, anyone can become frustrated with the woeful inefficiency of the House Of Representatives and Senate. There’s just one problem: The phrase makes no sense. It says nothing. It doesn’t tell us who the clowns are, or what specific actions make them clowns, or how those clowns got where they are in the first place. It’s the type of banality one might expect from an entertainment show that wants to be “political” but doesn’t want to say anything that could possibly offend anyone on either side of the aisle.
The line reminds us that neutral political satire is difficult. Taking on the system without pinning the blame specifically on liberals or conservatives often produces toothless, bland results. But it doesn’t have to. In the right hands, bipartisan satire can be just as biting and insightful as satire that targets a specific group. Ironically, no one has done a better job of illustrating this than The Simpsons.
Debuting one season after “Bart Gets An Elephant,” “Bart’s Comet” puts a large celestial object on a collision course with Springfield. Fortunately, the federal government steps in, creating a bill that would evacuate the town prior to the comet’s impact. Unfortunately, the bill fails to pass the House after it picks up a rider pledging $30 million to the “perverted arts.” News of the bill’s defeat prompts a legendary Kent Brockman lament: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work.” Like the DJ 3000, the right and the left could both claim this scene as a win for their side. Conservatives could claim that it attacks spend-heavy liberals, who stuff pork into a bill at the most inappropriate time. Conversely, liberals might view it as a mocking of conservatives’ uptight morals, as they would let an entire town die just to avoid giving money to a cause they find objectionable.
Really, though, both sides would be wrong. The joke attacks the entire political system for being so idiotic that the “perverted arts” rider could even be attached to the Springfield-saving bill. It points out the illogical inefficiency of the congressional system in a way that simultaneously places the blame on no one and everyone. “Bart Gets An Elephant” and “Bart’s Comet” writer John Swartzwelder would later exploit that inefficiency for the Simpsons’ gain in the 14th season’s “Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington.” When the family is tormented by planes flying close to their home, they attach a rider for fixing the problem to an innocuous piece of legislature called the “Flags For Orphans” act.
The only way to get what you want in The Simpsons’ America is to bend the rules in your favor, which brings up another of the show’s pet political themes: corruption. Municipal employees like Mayor Quimby and Chief Wiggum are frequently caught in crooked dealings, and the city’s congressional representative Bob Arnold is shown accepting bribes from the logging industry in “Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington.” Exposed by Lisa, Arnold is eventually caught on a larger charge and expelled from Congress. Arnold isn’t given a party affiliation, just a lack of principles and a reverence for money. The conclusion could be that he’s the stereotypical pro-business, anti-environment conservative, or it could be that he’s a Democrat who campaigned on environmental policies only to abandon them when the price is right.
One thing is for sure, the audience is better off not knowing. If Bob Arnold is explicitly revealed as a liberal or a conservative, the implied partisan message would have overshadowed the most important part of “Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington,” which is how much it hurts Lisa to see the system she worships for what it really is. If her pain had shared the spotlight with a message of “[Insert party here] is bad,” it wouldn’t resonate nearly as much. By refusing to take a side, and just depicting Washington politics as a “cesspool on the Potomac,” the show makes its point more effectively, and wrings more emotion from the situation.
All of these episodes expertly skewer what happens in the corridors of power, but how do you gain admission to those corridors? The Simpsons’ best answer to this question is delivered by the third segment of “Treehouse Of Horror VII,” “Citizen Kang.” When “Treehouse” fixtures Kang and Kodos assume the bodies of presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, they placate the electorate with meaningless platitudes. “The politics of failure have failed! We need to make them work again!” Kang-as-Dole proclaims on the eve of the election. In an earlier address, Kodos-as-Clinton delivers the classic line about “twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.” Even when one of them trips over a line, it makes nary a difference: No one notices when the faux Clinton kicks off the “twirling” speech with “My fellow Americans: As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball.” This segment reminds us that running for president of the United States often has less to do with policy, and more to do with pandering. When Hillary Clinton dabs, or Ted Cruz cooks bacon on a machine gun barrel, it’s hard not to wonder if they too ever wanted to be a baseball.
As hilarious as Kang and Kodos’ rhetoric is, it has nothing on the ending of “Citizen Kang”: Homer reveals the candidates for the hideous space aliens they are, and it makes no difference whatsoever. It’s a two-party system, after all, and the invaders liken voting for a third-party candidate to throwing your vote away. Twenty years later, this segment feels as relevant as ever. For many, the prospective choice between another Clinton and Donald Trump feels a lot like choosing Kang or Kodos. Even if you see Clinton as the superior candidate (because come on), it’s still an immense source of frustration that American voters are perpetually looking at two choices, and essentially forced to pick the one we hate the least. South Park did a strong job critiquing this dilemma in its “Douche And Turd” episode, too—but The Simpsons did it first, and did it best.
Of course, just because The Simpsons is adept at neutral satire, that doesn’t mean the people behind the scenes never tell us what their beliefs are. One episode explicitly refers to Fox News as “your voice for evil,” while several others have depicted the Republican Party’s Springfield headquarters as a frightening castle on a cliff, accompanied by ominous music, thunder claps, and a howling wolf. (Also, Count Dracula is a member.) But even an episode like “Two Cars In Every Garage, And Three Eyes On Every Fish”—which clearly casts C. Montgomery Burns as a greedy Republican villain—makes several observations about the entire political process that don’t favor either side. While Mr. Burns’ views are right-wing, his team has no ideology other than winning, and they’ll go to any dishonest measure to make that happen. We see them attempt to turn Mr. Burns into a likable figure—and nearly pull it off—but as we watch the artificiality of it all, it feels as though Burns’ unscrupulous team could have worked the same magic for a liberal. The episode has the partisan message that capitalist greed is bad, but it has a separate, bipartisan message that the process of winning an election is an entirely superficial affair. In that sense, it’s perfect companion to “Citizen Kang.”
In recent years, the show has increasingly worn its left-wing politics on its sleeve, with mixed results. The 2008 and 2012 elections both saw Simpsons shorts where Homer is manhandled by Republican-friendly voting machines, while an anti-fracking episode is extremely zealous in getting its point across (Marge says the phrase “our water was on fire” about five times). Even if you agree with the message here, it’s hard not to find it all a tad heavy-handed.
Still, in its prime, The Simpsons was an endless source of genius political satire, which often didn’t betray an explicitly liberal or conservative slant. No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, the world of politics is an incredibly ludicrous place, and time after time, The Simpsons pointed that out better than anyone else. The show may have lost its satirical edge, but in its prime, there was no better source to tell us why those clowns in congress were such a bunch of clowns.