South Park Republicans was an often evoked idea throughout the 2000s. It signified the strain of libertarianism, or pseudo-libertarian thinking, that would transition to the Ron Paul side of Republicans in 2008. Now, South Park Republicans as a societal movement don’t really exist anymore, due to the Ron Paul movement transitioning to the Tea Party movement, transitioning into the Donald Trump movement, and lapsing deeper and deeper into old fashioned authoritarian fascism.
There’s a similar parallel on the liberal side, and that’s Family Guy Democrats. There’s a few reason this idea hasn’t been written about though, and the connection is less explicitly clear to become a “thing”. For one, the type of Democrats who embody the Family Guy political worldview are not the same people who usually watch Family Guy, and in fact, probably see the show as lowly trash culture. Another reason we don’t think about Family Guy Democrats is because the way that the Family Guy political worldview manifests in practical politics doesn’t resemble the way it manifests on the show.
South Park is didactic and wears its political approach with pride. It tells you its political message. Family Guy, on the other hand, makes obscene, misogynistic, gross, bawdy etc jokes that don’t align with the respectability politics of Democrats. But, when we look at the orientation of Family Guy joke-telling, the angle from which it approaches humor, it aligns with the mainstream, neoliberal Democratic politic.
I would argue these are the three major characteristics of Family Guy Democrats:
- Snarky and performative ridicule of Republicans. A contemporary example would be criticizing Republican politicians with the “Orange covfefe Drumpf” strain of liberal twitter outrage. But more importantly, it involves ridiculing the “Republican base,” which to the neoliberal, middle class plus Democrats amounts to ridiculing poor, stupid, and southern laborers.
- Being firmly entrenched in a centrist deviation of the American New Left. The New Left was the leftist movement that began in the 60s, as an alternative to the conventional Marxist left, which focused on labor and workers rights. Many New Leftists were still Marxists and radicals, like the Black Panthers. But for the most part, the angle of the New Left was to prioritize social issues over economic issues. As this strain of thought continued throughout the years, past the point where both Democrats and Republicans openly embraced neoliberal politics, this New Left derivation became so reductive that it only cares about social issues.
- Associating elements and traits of class with identity, instead of class itself. Examples would include associating poverty with being black, or being greedy with being Jewish. Of course, this is the modus operandi of the right, but it’s also used by mainstream Democrats as well, but assuming race and ethnicity itself is the factor of poverty, rather than race and ethnicity being used as a dimension to enforce poverty.
Since neoliberalism is thrown around a lot, I do feel the need to define how I use it in this post. Neoliberalism, most simplistically, means pro-capitalism, unregulated. It’s the stage of capitalism developed in the late 70s, after the Keynesian model. Neoliberal policy is in favor of big government, but not to regulate the market, but instead enable it (think the big bank bailout, and the numerous amount of semi-private, pseudo-government agencies). Neoliberals believe that “economic freedom”, as in the freedom to accumulate capital, is a necessity to preserve “political freedom”. Neoliberals believe market forces actually benefit marginalized identities.
This switch to believing the market actually empowers marginalized individuals in turn has cultural ramifications. For example, if all races are seen as equal before the market, then the ideology of “I don’t see race” logically follows. Eventually, this mentality on race, which prevailed from about the 80s through the 00s, has to explain how class differences can exist. But under the neoliberal framework, something that isn’t class has to explain the characteristics of class. This explanation has to be identities, whether be racial, ethnic, gender, etc.
For example, on Family Guy, Peter represents the working class and his father-in-law Carter represents the hyper wealthy. From a neoliberal perspective, rich and poor are merely identities that Carter and Peter belong to, rather than indicative of class. Peter is poor, Cleveland is black, and Joe is in a wheelchair, and Brian is a dog, and Carter is rich; in the neoliberal eye of Family Guy, all of these things are characteristics, but can be modulated, and are undifferentiated.
This can be seen in many of the show’s narratives. In one episode, Peter goes from fat to fit. In another episode, Peter goes from white to black. Peter (and Chris) goes from stupid to smart. Joe goes from disabled to abled. Meg goes from ugly to hot. Lois goes from slutty to prudish. Identity swapping, like Shakespearean gender swapping on steroids, is the main narrative tool of the show.
These transformations could all be illuminating if they illustrated the economic and social impact of these transformations, or if the show had anything to say at all about it. Identity is at the basis of many Family Guy jokes, but only as an inventory. The show tells us “here are three jokes about the Identity A traits X, Y, and Z”.
In season 12 episode 6, ‘Life of Brian’, the episode opens with Brian and Stewie in an alternate reality where native Americans control the United States. The show uses this as an opportunity to say Native Americans drive Jeeps, wear denim vests, and use shamanic ritual in hospitals…and nothing else. The reason the show can’t say anything more than gesture towards a cluster of characteristics, is because neoliberalism doesn’t acknowledge the superstructures that the free market creates.
One of the main points of contention is that Brian is clearly a liberal, and he makes his political views clear. He’s often called out as the mouthpiece of Seth Macfarlane. However, it’s hard to take any of Brian’s liberal arguments seriously, because they’re constantly undercut by the fact that Brian is extremely annoying, both to characters in the show and the viewer. Not only that, but he’s a genuinely terrible person. And on top of all that, he doesn’t have a differing worldview from his conservative counterparts. They see the world the same way, they just have different perspectives from the same view.
I think the most exemplary way to see this dynamic is in Family Guy’s antisemitism. This may seem non sequitur to the ‘typical liberal tone’. Or it may seem like self deprecation on the part of Jewish writers on the show. However, it exemplifies the problems that this identity and market-oriented thinking leads to. If you don’t understand economics while considering class, then you will look for a different group to attribute economic suffering to. For example, if the writers of Family Guy were going to make a joke criticizing a group of people for being cheap, greedy, and parasitic, who would be the butt of the joke: billionaire Carter Pewterschmidt, or Jewish neighbor Mort Goldman? Since class doesn’t matter, we are equal before the market, then clearly the rich people aren’t greedy, they’re #winning. So who can we attribute rampant greed to? Jews.
So that brings us to Democrats: so far, I’ve explained why Family Guy is written from a shared perspective of neoliberal politics. But, how, specifically does this link in to a dominant current of Democratic Party thought?
I will use a quintessential example from Clinton’s 2016 campaign (I’ve referenced this quote on this blog before. I use it a lot because it exemplifies the Democratic party line):
“Not everything is about an economic theory, right? If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”
This perspective depends on neoliberal thinking: we are all equal before the market, and therefore, the only forms of oppression are neo-Nazi skinheads shouting the N word. I’m exaggerating, but Clinton certainly believes racism is exclusively perpetrated by people who prescribe to racist ideology. The right, who are so engrained in the same neoliberal ideology, which they believe themselves to be in opposition to, believe this too.
This is why there’s pointless bickering between the center-left Democrats, who only know how to call out individuals for implicitly racist statements. and the right, who always replies with “oh, I’m a racist? Well then everyone’s racist then”. Neither of them see that the racist individual is perpetuating systemic oppression, so the liberal can only say “you are racist” and the racist can only say “no, I’m not”.
I want to interject here and reiterate the connection between the perspective of Family Guy and the perspective of Hillary Clinton is much looser than the connection between, say, South Park and Ron Paul. This is mostly because, as mentioned earlier, South Park is much more didactic than Family Guy. Also, Family Guy is crude in a way Democrats are not.
But let’s go back to the episode I mentioned earlier, where Brian witnesses an alternate reality where Natives control the US. A Marxist perspective on this reality would be focused on how history is different because of this, and how the economy would be different based on that historical perspective. From that basis, the show could make speculative jokes about how that economy would effect the culture.
On the contrary, the show does the liberal perspective. The liberal worldview has no past and future. It has no masters or slaves. The liberal worldview has no systems, it has inventories of characteristics. Native American people love denim vests, and other than that, and some other traits, they are the same as everyone else–they are free in the eyes of the market.