The Simpsons’ focus on politics has always been nuanced, smart and curiously prescient: think, for example, of the Season 11 episode “Bart To The Future,” in which Bart sees into the future, discovering that Lisa is the first female president and she’s “inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump” – the episode came out in 2000, a decade and a half before anyone had any idea that the former The Apprentice star would be running for office.
Perhaps it’s the complexity with which politics is depicted on the show which has led to The Simpsons being claimed by both Republicans and Democrats as their own TV spirit animal. Republicans can point to Springfield’s “Spend-o-crat” Mayor Quimby’s numerous misdemeanours as proof of the show’s not-so-secret contempt for liberal politics, while Democrats argue that Lisa’s right-on vibes and role as the show’s conscience suggest The Simpsons secretly favors the Democratic party.
Honestly? The Simpsons writer with the most episodes under his belt, John Schwartzwelder (who has penned 59 episodes) has made no secret of his own politics: he’s proudly Libertarian. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that simply because Schwartzwelder’s politics are Libertarian that the show is – 59 episodes is still only 10% of the 596 episodes broadcast so far.
So is The Simpsons Republican or Democratic? Let’s analyze key political moments in the show’s history to see.
Season 7, episode 4, “Two Bad Neighbours”
Let the records show: it was the Bushes that started the feud, not The Simpsons. In a 1990 interview with People magazine, George H.W. Bush’s wife Barbara described the show as “the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen.” In 1992 former Republican president George H.W. Bush stated at a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
So kudos to The Simpsons’ writers, who managed to satirize the Bushes without being mean-spirited about it. Audiences were surprised by “Two Bad Neighbours,” whose storyline about Bush Senior moving down the road from Homer was expected to be rich political satire – instead, the show gently makes fun of Bush’s personality. He’s a cranky neighbor. However, even this is softened by context – when Bart shreds Bush’s typewritten autobiography, the audience is prompted to be more on Bush’s side than Bart’s.
Verdict: Pro-Republican. Even “Two Bad Neighbours” ends with former Republican president Gerald Ford moving in down the street and Homer drinking a beer with him – presumably a nod to the homily that the electorate votes for the candidate that they’d rather have a beer with.
Season 6, episode 5 “Sideshow Bob Roberts”
When Sideshow Bob phones up Birch Barlow, a Republican radio talk show host and complains he’s been imprisoned for “a crime I didn’t even commit – attempted murder,” the pundit doesn’t try to figure out whether or not Bob’s committed the crime – he thinks Bob is “just another intelligent conservative…railroaded by our liberal justice system” and that’s good enough for him. Barlow makes it his “mission to see that our friend Bob is set free.”
When Mayor Quimby succumbs to peer pressure and approves Sideshow Bob’s release, the Republican Party think Bob is their obvious choice to defeat Quimby in the upcoming election – and it seems like the electorate agree with them when Sideshow Bob wins with 100% of the votes. Oh – until Lisa and Bart uncover that Sideshow Bob pulled a, well, Sideshow Bob and tampered with the votes, adding forged pro-Sideshow Bob votes from deceased Springfield members and pets into the mix.
Verdict: Given that it’s thanks to an extremist Republican radio host that Bob gets freed and the fact that the Republican party thinks a man who’s attempted murder twice makes for a good candidate, I’d say this episode is mostly anti-Republican. This said, there are some great lines reserved for the Democrat party, namely Birch Barlow’s description of Mayor Quimby as “the illiterate, tax-cheating, pot-smoking spend-o-crat Diamond Joe Quimby.”
Season 8, Episode 1: “Treehouse of Horror VII”
In part three of this Halloween-themed episode, aliens Kang and Kodos impersonate Bill Clinton and his rival Bob Dole in the runup to the 1996 presidential election.
Verdict: It’s a tie. The focus of satire here isn’t really Republicans or Democrats – the episode seems to imply there’s no meaningful difference between the two parties. What this episode really makes fun of is the voting public. Their alien approximation of empty political speeches is nonsense but it employs the same persuasive patterns of rhetoric that politicians use, and therefore despite being effectively meaningless, the speech sways the crowd. Kang says “As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball. But now we must move forward, not backward. Upward not forward. And always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” to cheers of support.
Season 10, Episode 9: “Mayored To The Mob”
When Homer becomes Mayor Quimby’s bodyguard, he uncovers the shocking truth behind the milk Springfield supplies to schools: it’s not from cows, but is milked from rats. Quimby’s well-aware of this, but since local mafia leader Fat Tony supplies the milk, Quimby is more preoccupied about endangering his own personal health by changing milk-suppliers than the health of the thousands of children sucking up rat milk each day.
Verdict: Anti-Democrat. Quimby may be affiliated with the party that’s supposed to be the caring side of the political spectrum, but he’s a hypocrite: ultimately he cares more about himself than the electorate he’s supposed to be serving.
Season 13, Episode 11: “Saddlesore Galactica”
Lisa’s school band play a rousing rendition of James Brown’s “Living In America” at a music competition and Lisa’s sure they’ve got this in the bag, but is incensed when they lose to Ogdenville Elementary School, who perform “Stars and Stripes Forever” using red, white and blue glowsticks to form a flag – this was against the rules as the competition forbids use of visual aids. Lisa accuses the rival band of cheating and later writes a complaint to President Clinton. President Clinton comes to see Lisa at home and presents her with a plaque, saying she was right, that Ogdenville was wrong to use glowsticks and Springfield Elementary’s band is the true winner.
Verdict: The episode includes Clinton giving the moral lesson “If things don’t go your way, just keep complaining until your dreams come true.” When Marge refutes this, saying it’s a lousy lesson, Clinton responds “Hey, I’m a pretty lousy President.” Um, so, yeah. If even the president himself admits he’s lousy, that’s not a great sign. I’m not sure if this is anti-Democrat so much as gently and affectionately anti-Bill Clinton.
Season 14, Episode 4: “Mr Spritz Goes To Washington”
The Simpsons’ lives are thrown into disarray by one Mayor Quimby. When Quimby gets sick of conducting his illicit affairs in a hotel under a noisy flight path, he changes the flight path so it goes over the Simpsons’ home, making it too noisy for them to sleep. They’re also unable to sell their house since nobody else wants to live under a flight path, either. The Simpsons go to Krusty for help, persuading him to run as a Republican candidate after the incumbent congressman passes away. With a little coaching from Lisa, Krusty connects with the electorate and wins the role of congressman. After some false starts in Washington, he’s finally able to get an act passed which moves the flight path.
Verdict: Mostly pro-Republican. After all, Quimby and the Democrat party are painted in a negative light – what’s more big government and intrusive than the government making a decision that affects you day and night in your own home? Plus Krusty-as-Republican is conscientious and hardworking and does his best to represent the Simpsons’ part of his electorate.
But, on the other hand, Krusty’s tactless and clunky interactions with women and racial minorities is more representative of the way the Republican party can be accused of being out of touch with non-white, male reality – he addresses a group of Latin-Americans in Spanish and inadvertently tells them he’s going to vomit on their mother’s graves, while he objectifies a female comedian in an anecdote when addressing a group of women.
Season 15, Episode 21: “The Bart Mangled Banner”
The episode explores the way patriotism and paranoia overlap (presumably, given that the episode came out in 2004, it’s exploring these themes in relation to 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act). When Bart accidentally moons an American flag and the image goes viral, him and his family are vilified. When Lisa tries to protest this and the “current climate of repression and fear” at church, a squad team takes the Simpsons away to the Ronald Reagan Reeducation Centre, which is populated by some other folks that could use reeducating about American values: Michael Moore, Bill Clinton and the Dixie Chicks.
Verdict: This episode’s pretty strongly anti-Republican – Bill Clinton is placed in the reeducation centre for calling “Republican tax cuts unwise.” However, the media environment equating dissent with being un-American feels more broadly critical of the paranoid vibes in political discussion in the wake of 9/11 – so perhaps the show’s sharpest satire is reserved for American politics in general, rather than just Republican.
Season 23, Episode 10: “Politically Inept With Homer Simpson”
Following a video showing Homer ranting about modern flights while riding an aircraft food trolley goes viral, Homer is given his own talk show where he talks about patriotism and weeps. The Republicans decide these are the perfect credentials for the person they want to choose their presidential candidate to run against Obama – Homer attempts to endorse Ted Nugent but is unable to baptize him with his tears – his heart just isn’t in it.
Verdict: Anti-Republican. The fact that Homer’s talk show, with its absence of any clear logic and emphasis on emotion and personal prejudice, so closely resembles TV shows from the likes of Glenn Beck (whose own PR statement describes his “unpredictable and passionate analysis” on his show) implies it’s meant to be an attack on the many uninformed, highly popular conservative pundits on TV and radio, from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh.
However, it’s also more widely critical of both parties’ reliance on entertainment personalities telling the public who to vote for, with Homer telling his public “Folks, because I love democracy so much, I command you to vote for this man whom I alone have selected as your next president.”
Season 25, Episode 6: “The Kid Is Alright”
Lisa makes a new friend who’s just like her: young, female and impossibly smart. But when Isabel Gutierrez turns out to be a Republican, the two new friends are forced to run against each other in the elementary school election. While Isabel rejects the offer of financial help from the local Republican party, who are excited to have found a young Hispanic girl who’s in favor of their politics, they pump money into her campaign anyway, even renaming the school after her.
Verdict: Gently anti-Republican. While Isabel’s appearance on the show prompts Lisa to question her knee-jerk reaction against Republicans (and potentially prompts Democrat viewers at home to do the same), the Springfield Republican Party trying to influence an elementary school election via the awesome power of the dollar makes for a sour note.
Season 27, Episode 21: “Simprovised”
In the much-feted improvised few minutes section of the episode, Homer stated he was “for Bernie Sanders” before praising Sanders’ great chicken and recommending we refer to Sanders as “the Colonel.”
Verdict: Zero alliance to anything beyond delicious fried chicken.
Ultimately, the “Simprovised” episode and The Simpsons’ recent political short, “The Debateful Eight” seem to encapsulate the show’s attitude towards American politics: Democrats and Republicans alike are fair game for satire. But why? A popular misconception about the show’s political neutrality goes something like this: Matt Groening’s a proud Democrat, Fox is a conservative network, so the neutrality’s a compromise. But since Fox aren’t allowed to give notes on any of The Simpsons scripts, this seems unlikely.
To me, the key to the show’s neutrality isn’t as pragmatic as the above would imply. It lies in the show’s true target of satire: politics itself. The Simpsons reserves its most scathing lines for the political process: Springfield’s electorate is apathetic, ill-informed and easily manipulated, with corruption being rife. If the show was pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, their overall critique would be weakened: The Simpsons isn’t hopeful enough about politics to believe that one party, whether Democrats or Republicans, having a clear majority would solve American politics.
And maybe this is the show’s most powerful weapon in their battle for continued relevancy after being on air for almost three decades. In January 2014, a Gallup poll showed that a record high of 42% of Americans identified themselves as independent, while people identifying as either Republican or Democrat had decreased. The Simpsons’ equal-opportunities satire has never been more relevant – let’s hope it stays like this. That way, there’s more than enough jokes for viewers aligned with either political party.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.