From The Simpsons episode, "Citizen Kang," 1996
Tonight, the Agenda discusses the legacy of The Simpsons, as the series marks the 25th anniversary of its first episode. For a show about a middle-class family with members frequently out of their depth, The Simpsons has provided us with dozens of lessons in understanding politics and government, from town council meetings to interstellar invasions. We've selected ten episodes whose lessons everyone, citizen and politician alike, should remember.
Air date: November 1, 1990.
What happens: Mr. Burns, frustrated by the government's regulation of his nuclear power plant, runs for office himself.
What we learn: Any political campaign can be derailed by a sufficiently damaging moment in the press, whether it's a candidate failing to catch a football gracefully, a Senator failing to remember how many homes he owns, or a nuclear power plant owner unable to swallow his own mutated fish at the dinner table. And Lisa's reading of her planted question is one for the ages: "Mr. Burns, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?"
A darker reading of the episode would be that it's all about money in politics, however, Americans have only a few examples of well-heeled billionaires running for office directly. Billionaires influencing the political process through campaign financing is another story altogether.
Episode: Mr. Lisa goes to Washington
Air date: September 26, 1991
What happens: After Lisa wins a speechwriting contest with a patriotic ode, the Simpson family wins an all-inclusive trip to Washington to see Lisa compete at the national level. While seeking inspiration at the Lincoln monument, Lisa overhears a Senator receiving a bribe from a logging industry representative. Her vision of a just democracy shattered, she tears up her original speech, and writes a scathing critique titled "Cesspool on the Potomac."
What we learn: The premise and plot of this episode are based on a 1939 movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," where the protagonist becomes disillusioned by the corruption in the American capitol. Unlike later Simpsons political satires, which usually end with a grimly cynical conclusion of democracy in America, this earlier episode has a positive ending. Lisa loses the contest, but in a classic montage of various governing bodies doing due diligence, the senator and lobbyist are arrested and the corruption exposed.
Episode: Flaming Moes
Air date: November 21, 1991
What happens: Homer shares a secret recipe with Moe the Bartender, who turns it into a runaway hit. Unfortunately, Moe's fortunes come tumbling down (with Homer) when the secret ingredient is revealed.
What we learn: This episode has something to teach us about intellectual property. Information wants to be free, especially if the secret ingredient is (spoiler alert!) cough syrup. After Homer lets the secret slip, the Springfield bars offer their own off-brand versions of the Flaming Moe. Homer and Moe don't get rich but the townspeople have many more choices for where to raise their phlegm-loosening spirits.
Episode: Marge vs. the Monorail
Air date: January 14, 1993
What happens: Singing huckster Lyle Lanley comes to Springfield, promising to do there what he's already done in Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook. He convinces the town, through song, that they need a monorail.
What we learn: It turns out that a catchy tune does not a wise transit project make. The Mowat Centre, a think tank at the University of Toronto, has cited the episode in the context of Toronto's transit woes and the need for long-term planning.
But the Frinks at the Mowat Centre missed one important criticism of the Springfield monorail: it took needed money away from basic infrastructure maintenance: As Marge and Bart sang, "But Main Street's still all cracked and broken/Sorry mom, the mob has spoken."
Episode: Last Exit to Springfield
Air date: March 11, 1993
What happens: Lisa needs braces, while Homer's union almost gives away their dental plan. Homer leads the union to victory in their strike, in the face of blackouts and hired goons.
What we learn: The Mowat Centre also cited this episode to illustrate the gaps in Canada's public health care system. While the episode lampoons the overreaction to Lisa's low-budget braces, good teeth can mean good pay: a 2008 study suggested women who grew up in towns with fluoridated water earned more than women who didn't. So perhaps we should talk about Canadian cities who have removed fluoride from their drinking water?
Episode: Sideshow Bob Roberts
Air date: October 9, 1994
What happens: Springfield goes to the polls once again to elect a new mayor. This time around, a sinister cabal of local Republicans select their star candidate: convicted criminal and Simpsons nemesis, Sideshow Bob. Mastermind to the Republican plot is a right-wing radio talk show host, Birch Barlow, who is an obvious satire of real-world radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh.
What we learn: Actually, the episode is a great primer on the iconic moments of American politics at its most partisan. Sideshow Bob's campaign advertisement is based on a famous revolving-door ad used by George H.W. Bush in his 1988 presidential campaign. The gag of course is that Sideshow Bob is the very criminal the current Mayor of Springfield, Joe Quimby, is accused of releasing too early.
A sick and overmedicated Quimby is skewered in a televised debate against Sideshow Bob. His sweating pallour parodies the very first televised presidential debate, when a suave and handsome John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon, who refused makeup despite recovering from an illness.
Episode: Bart vs. Australia
Air date: February 19, 1995
What happens: Bart offends the entire country of Australia, and can only repair American-Australian relations by submitting to corporal punishment.
What we learn: This all could have been avoided if Bart had Google back in 1995, where he would have learned that toilets don't actually flow backwards in the southern hemisphere due of the Earth's rotation. (Take that, Lisa.) The episode is also a trenchant commentary on the general ignorance Americans — and too many others — exhibit when visiting new places. (Homer and Bart trying to escape in the pouches of kangaroos, anyone?) Even Australia, an English-speaking country that shares many cultural roots with America, leaves the Simpsons adrift until they're rescued by helicopter.
Episode: Citizen Kang
Air date: October 27, 1996
What happens: With a week to go before the 1996 American presidental election, President Bill Clinton and Republican party candidate Bob Dole are replaced with alien doppelgängers bent on conquering Earth. A series of bizarre political speeches, debates and statements ensue that at first appear to be nonsequiturs, but are in fact commentaries on the American electoral process, most memorably, the fickle American electorate:
Dole Doppelgänger: "Abortions for all!"
Dole Doppelgänger: "Very well, no abortions for anyone!"
Dole Doppelgänger: "Hmm, abortions for some, miniature American flags for others."
Episode: Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment
Air date: March 16, 1997
What happens: Springfield implements prohibition after Bart is intoxicated at a St. Patrick's Day parade. Homer becomes the "Beer Baron," supplying Springfield with its desired vices.
What we learn: Regulating intoxicating substances can be tricky: everyone agrees that we don't want to make alcohol available to young children (like Bart) but outright prohibition has a poor record too, as Springfield learned (and the U.S. record during the 1920s showed). As some U.S. states like Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana, they're going through the same growing pains.
Episode: The Trouble with Trillions
Air date: April 5, 1998
What happens: After Homer is caught committing tax fraud by the IRS, he's forced to go undercover to retrieve a trillion-dollar bill stolen by his boss Mr. Burns. The single bill was printed in 1945 by Harry S. Truman to pay for the reconstruction of post-war Europe.
What we learn: This questionable fiscal policy joke actually predicted a half-serious proposal put forward by several American economists as a resolution to the American debt ceiling crisis in 2011. Paul Krugman, among others, suggested that the United States Mint produce a trillion dollar coin to transfer to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Written by John Michael McGrath and Michael Lehan
Image Credit: Gracie Films, 20th Century Fox/wikia.com
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