Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Beyond Kang and Kodos

with 5 comments

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

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.

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

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.

5 Responses

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  1. Love your blog, but couldn’t disagree with you more. Kang and Kodos are perfect. As Homer might say, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

    It’s not a superficial analysis at all, but a deep one, that goes to the root. They are both capitalists and either one will cause untold misery for millions around the world.

    Clinton is not better for Muslims: she is more likely than the somewhat isolationist Trump to get involved in more wars with Muslim countries, thus murdering thousands more.

    She is not better for immigrants. Her neoliberal policies will force more and more refugees to seek shelter, thus inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment even more.

    She will not be better for women: her anti-union history means that minimum wage workers, many of them women, will be struggling yet again.

    She will not be better for gays and lesbians. Everything that has been achieved by the gay community has come without her support. She has come very late to gay marriage, only after the major gains had been won. Her instincts for sexual freedom are negative.

    She certainly won’t be better for any of the 99%, as she is bought and sold by Wall Street.

    She will deflect all criticism by Democrats, as Obama has, and pass the elite’s agenda without opposition.

    Trump is not better.

    It is truly Kang and Kados.

    Fortunately, the episode has the solution embedded in it. Instead of wasting one’s vote on the monsters, work to build a party that offers some sanity. The Green Party is presently polling at 7%. That’s enough to swing an election–if unlike Sanders, one holds out for significant real concessions.

    Jack Shalom

    July 18, 2016 at 10:15 am

  2. @Jack Shalom: Well, we obviously don’t agree—but I really do appreciate the thoughtful and well-reasoned response! It’s the kind of discussion that we need.


    July 18, 2016 at 10:52 am

  3. Oh man… Jack Shalom is the first person to have given me a good reason to vote for the devil. She’s anti-union?! That’s great!

    I’m a libertarian and feeling a little left out of political options- as usual.
    They say vote for Gary is not voting at all, but I cant cast a vote for either Kang or Kodos. I don’t want them seeing my vote as support for either one of their heinous agendas.


    July 18, 2016 at 4:42 pm

  4. Well, Jack Shalom points out many of the issues with Clinton in particular, and as Soulstains demonstrates, you’ve got a party whose policies are more palatable to right-libertarians than they are to democrats. I’m not sure what exactly you expect from the American electorate when this is the case. Throughout her time in office she has fought hard against every issue that democrats use to get votes. The fact that she’s running against Donald Trump is the only way she’d ever have a chance of being elected president. She’s also about the only democrat I’d worry about losing to Trump. I honestly put their chances at about even. Maybe the Democratic party will get lucky and she will win, but it will be a matter of luck, not her strengths as a candidate.

    You have a problem here, and it’s not one that can be fixed by saying, “Sure, Hillary may be bad, but at least she isn’t Trump.” We know Trump is bad. But Clinton isn’t offering us an alternative. All the things we’re supposed to be worried about with him we’ve already seen from her. What is the point?

    I’m not sure I like being accused as “masquerading” as having done an analysis. We’ve seen what she’s done in office. Surely we know where Clinton stands on these issues? We’re supposed to look at her resume, but what is on there that is meant to earn our support? Is it her defense of Walmart? Is it her advocacy of war in Libya and Syria? Is it the fact that she used racially coded language instead of the blatantly racist things Trump says? It seems the democrats feel they are just entitled to our votes, and if they run weak candidates that have never stood up for our interests or our values, we’re just supposed to suck it up. Well, I can’t do that. In the same way that Bernie stayed in the primary to extract promises from Clinton–promises I am certain she will break–third party candidates like Jill Stein are there to show conservative democrats that it’s not enough to have a D after your name. You have to be willing to compete for the leftist vote. Perhaps the Democratic party will learn that you have to do that with policy rather than empty promises during campaign season, but they’ll only be willing to learn if we’re willing to teach them.

    Part of what will make this lesson easier is instant run-off voting, which has been instituted in several localities across the country, and the state of Maine even passed a ballot initiative that will implement IRV statewide. It would be good if we could get this established across the whole country. But even before that happens, the Democrats will still have to do better than blackmail the electorate with a possible Republican presidency. Nobody owes your candidate a vote; if they want our support, they will have to earn it. Most people, sadly, will respond to the weakness of both candidates by staying home this election, but some of us have not given up. We’re staying active, and along with campaigning for issues we’re joining third parties. No, we don’t think that Stein or Johnson will win the very next presidential election, but as our support grows we’ll be able to use it along with protests and demonstrations to garner policy concessions. Of course the best case scenario is that one or both major parties is totally replaced. It won’t happen soon, but the first step to making it happen eventually is believing that it can. Telling people that it can’t–pleading with them to save you from the other party–is not going to gain support for the duopoly. People will see what looks like the same old partisan bickering and they’ll just stay home–at least until someone gives them an alternative.


    July 18, 2016 at 11:53 pm

  5. @livetransform: It’s certainly possible to make a reasoned progressive case against Clinton! What I find objectionable is the kind of false equivalence that closes off further analysis, or which ends the discussion before it even begins.


    July 19, 2016 at 6:15 pm

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