Beyond Kang and Kodos
In a recent blog post on FiveThirtyEight about the state of election polling, Nate Silver mused about what would keep him up at night if he were Hillary Clinton. He concluded: “I’d be worried that Americans come to view the race as one between two equally terrible choices, instead of Trump being uniquely unacceptable.” As the Republican National Convention lurches to a start today in Cleveland, there are signs that a lot of voters have arrived at that exact conclusion. And if you’re a certain kind of television fan, it’s hard not to think of The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment “Citizen Kang,” which aired twenty years ago this fall, shortly before the presidential election of 1996. It’s the segment in which alien invaders Kang and Kodos assume the forms of candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, leading to seven of the most quotable minutes in the show’s history. Two lines, in particular, continue to resonate with self-proclaimed political cynics. One comes after Homer has exposed Kang and Kodos in their true forms, leading to this exchange:
Kodos: It’s a two-party system! You have to vote for one of us!
Man: Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead—throw your vote away!
And the other comes at the very end, after the victorious President Kang has enslaved the nation, prompting Homer to say to Marge: “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos.”
For many viewers, the episode encapsulates the suspicion—which we encounter across the political spectrum—that the two major parties, deep down, are basically the same. But they aren’t. Not really. And to understand why “Citizen Kang” isn’t as trenchant or insightful as it seems, we can turn to the writers and producers who worked on the episode itself. On the commentary track for the show’s eighth season, which was recorded in 2006, series creator Matt Groening and producers Josh Weinstein, David X. Cohen, and Dan Greaney have the following discussion:
Weinstein: Now, I would say, even though it’s specific candidates, the message is timeless…
Cohen: Yeah. One thing I think I’ve noticed about comedy shows that take on elections is the point is always the same—the point is it does not matter which of the awful candidates you vote for…
Greaney: Which is a complete falsity. I mean, the idiot criminal that we have in office is…a lot worse.
Cohen: I’m not saying it’s a good point. I’m just saying it always seems to be the point.
Groening: Because it feels like it’s a comment.
Cohen: Right. You’re able to feel like you’re making a commentary without actually taking sides and alienating people.
Greaney: Yeah, but—when you have somebody who is clearly an aggressor, then…evenhandedness is actually favoring the aggressor.
Cohen: That’s true.
And although I know it’s never going to happen, I wish that the insights conveyed in those last few lines were as familiar as “Citizen Kang” itself. The difference between the episode’s implicit message and the feelings expressed in the commentary track can be chalked up to the fact that the former was written during the Clinton administration, while the latter was recorded ten years later, at the height of disillusionment with George W. Bush. (In other commentaries, the writers mock their own ruthless skewering of Clinton at the time, joking, with a touch of wistfulness, that he was obviously the worst president the country would ever have.) If anything, though, it rings even more true today. And I think that Groening and Cohen—who went on to create Futurama—get at the heart of the matter. Saying that the Democratic and Republican nominees are equally compromised isn’t a political insight, but a simulation of one: it’s a comedic or narrative strategy disguised as an opinion. It’s the most insidious kind of empty statement, which allows the speaker to seem superficially insightful, even subversive, while really closing off the kind of thinking that really matters. As Cohen points out, this kind of false equivalence is perfect for writers who want to create the appearance of making a point without really saying anything. It doesn’t even qualify as real cynicism: it sidesteps actual thought as much as blind allegiance to any one party. And like most forms of laziness, it’s a luxury afforded only to those who are lucky enough not to be intensely vulnerable to the real consequences that presidential elections produce.
If it sounds like I’m being unduly hard on The Simpsons, I’m not: it wouldn’t be so powerful an example if it weren’t the best television show of all time. Its eighth season was a masterpiece, but there were limits to the messages it could send, simply because it was better off, in the long run, if it pitched its satire squarely down the middle—and also because it was television. This bears repeating, especially now. We’re in the middle of an election in which the lines between politics and entertainment have been blurred as never before, and not just because one of the candidates is a former and future reality star. Trump’s simulated version of tough talk and big ideas has been accepted as true by a sizable percentage of the electorate, because it only needs to hold together for long enough to last until the next commercial break. His strategy isn’t that of the big lie, but of a series of improvisations strung end to end, which he hopes will get him through to November. (It’s why he takes so naturally to Twitter.) But those who dismiss Trump and his supporters should begin by demanding more of themselves. The writers behind “Citizen Kang” only had to come up with a message that could sustain a third of a Halloween episode. At the time, it might have seemed plausible, but it only took one more election to expose it forever. Or it should have. But it’s always easier to recuse oneself from the difficult realization that the choice between candidates has huge practical consequences. Trump and Clinton aren’t the same, not for most of us, and certainly not for Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups that have evolved what Charles Blow has called “a sort of functional pragmatism” to survive. You can still tell yourself, if you like, that this election is a choice between Kang and Kodos. But it isn’t. Even if The Simpsons did it first.