Half of the country was elated; they believed that Obama was returning America to its roots. The other half was terrified; they believed that Obama was hacking at America’s roots with a blunt axe.
The same year Barack Obama took office, another man would grace America’s television screens. He would speak in only so many words with a deadpan expression through a perfectly full and sculpted mustache framing his upper lip, which was downturned into a suspicious frown. His name was Ron Swanson and he would stare into the camera and say:
My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke. The man is chosen based on some kind of IQ test, and maybe also a physical tournament, like a decathlon. And women are brought to him, maybe ... when he desires them.
America would come to adore him.
In NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson heads the Parks Department in Pawnee, Indiana. His deputy, Leslie Knope, does all the work and Ron is often in his office drinking whiskey or doing the crossword. When he comes out for a meeting or an activity, he often hangs back, silent, his arms crossed over his chest.
I am a bleeding-heart liberal and a raging feminist, but The Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness poster hangs tattered on my bedroom wall. I was Ron Swanson for Halloween, which I consider one of my greatest costume achievements.
I wasn’t the only liberal who loved him. By 2011, Ron Swanson had been named the second-best character on television by Paste Magazine and the best character by MTV News. When Ron did speak, what he said about everything from food to the burning of ex-wife effigies became a kind of life guide. A Google search for him yields listicle after listicle: Buzzfeed’s “If Ron Swanson Quotes were Motivational Posters,” Thought Catalog’s “43 Greatest Ron Swanson Quotes that Prove he Might be your Spirit Animal,” and the Huffington Post’s “18 Ways to be a True American Like Ron Swanson.” Some of the most humorous pieces of advice are “Clear alcohols are for rich women on diets,” and “Never half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.” But they also showcase Ron’s brash, libertarian, borderline-offensive political opinions: “Capitalism: God’s way of deciding who’s smart and who’s poor,” and “History began on July 4th, 1776. Everything before that was a mistake.”
All of these publications are overwhelmingly liberal, often praising liberal political agendas and publishing Republican gaffes as soon as they have left the offender’s lips. Those Republicans’ political opinions were often not too far from Ron Swanson’s. Joe Wilson, the Congressman who notoriously yelled, “You lie!” at Obama’s first State of the Union Address, even wrote an opinion piece in Politico titled, “Spending, Ron Swanson-style.” Ron’s politics are deplorable to some, yet on the Internet and off, Ron could do no wrong. He had become a figure that symbolized what was fundamentally American for liberals and conservatives alike. Both the left and the right invoke freedom, hard work, patriotism, tolerance, courage, loyalty, fair play, and curiosity as a form of gut-wrenching rhetoric. Ron embodies all of these.
The designation “American” has always been a living, breathing thing. Throughout the nation’s history, the words of the Constitution have expanded and contracted like a pair of lungs, inhaling old meanings and exhaling new ones with changing attitudes and beliefs. Brown vs. Board of Education would end segregation, while Citizen’s United would conflate money with free speech. These moments were conceived when America was either on its way to becoming a “more perfect union,” or moving further away. Perhaps the one certainty about America is that it is never quite there, either just ahead or behind us. We are either about to hold her, or she is slipping through our fingers.
These shifts are the results of what Americans value most: freedom. The word is so broad, so open, so empty, and yet so positive, that it is easily manipulated. In the years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush invoked freedom constantly. Freedom—more so than Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction—would be the reasoning behind invading Iraq. At a press conference in 2002, Bush would explain, “We've got people starving to death, because a nation chooses to build weapons of mass destruction. And on the other side there's freedom. And it's important for those of us who love freedom to work with nations to convince them to choose freedom.”
Bush was offering an ultimatum. Disagreeing with invading Iraq meant that you didn’t love freedom, and by an extension you didn’t love America either. Freedom was beginning to sound a lot like tyranny; patriotism was beginning to sound a lot like nationalism. Without a structure, freedom can be transformed into anything.
*** On the surface, Ron Swanson merely looks like a caricature of the American, conservative man who would get behind Bush without a second thought. In addition to hating big government, Ron Swanson passionately loves Lagavulin scotch, steak, eggs, and bacon (especially if that bacon is wrapped around shrimp or a turkey leg). He enjoys sports and he is often casually carrying a basketball or a football around the office. He’s not just a typical conservative male. Ron is also a die-hard, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps libertarian. He claims that he “is not interested in caring about other people.” He values his privacy so much that he finds birthdays repulsive because it is a celebration of others knowing a piece of information about him. He is an avid outdoorsman and teaches survival skills to the Pawnee Rangers with a handbook that he wrote himself that reads, “Be a man.”
Ron Swanson’s patriotism is similar to the simplistic—often perceived as ignorant—“America, fuck yeah” attitude that became so pervasive in the Bush era (with some libertarianism sprinkled in). Although it has often been used rhetorically for the worst, there is something undeniably American about it. The founding of America is often depicted as a noble moment, but the rebel spirit of Americans was willful and obnoxious, shaking the decorum and propriety of British power. Fredrick Marryat, a British visitor to America in 1837 wrote, “‘Go ahead’ is the real motto of the country.” This observation echoes Ron Swanson’s presentation of a permit written on a piece of printer paper, in tiny comic sans font that reads “I can do what I want” to a police officer when he wants to slaughter a pig in a public park for a department barbecue.
But as much as he claims he does not care about other people, he often injects himself into other character’s lives. Andy Dwyer is the most dysfunctional character in the show. The only job he can hold onto is shining shoes at City Hall and he is always broke. When Andy tries to improve himself by taking a class at the local community college, Ron encourages him to take something challenging. He becomes so invested in Andy that he accompanies him to pick a class and they settle on “Introduction to Women’s Studies.” When Andy finds out he can’t afford to pay for the class, Ron gives him the money. “Why not? I like the kid and I have the money. One thing I promised myself when I buried gold in my backyard was that I would never be a hoarder or a miser, ” he explains.
I love Ron because he reminds me that being an American is first and foremost a matter of character, not politics. In a political context, Andy and Ron would have occupied two different spheres. Andy would be characterized as the irresponsible, lazy individual and Ron would be the grudging taxpayer. But political beliefs are not necessarily indicative of character. The libertarian is often depicted as selfish and greedy, while the socialist is selfless and unconcerned with material wealth. Ron may be a libertarian, but he is deeply concerned with helping people he knows, especially those who need it the most.
Ron Swanson may say, “I do what I want,” yet what he does is determined by a rigid code. This becomes most apparent when his and Leslie’s political opinions clash. Ron fights for his beliefs but he isn’t willing to take cheap shots to get results. Although Leslie’s motives to get things done are often well-intentioned, she is tempted to play dirty. Ron’s allegiance to his code, although she vehemently disagrees with parts of it, keeps her grounded. After realizing that her desire to keep a putt-putt course funded was beginning to cloud her moral judgment, she storms into Ron’s office and says, “Your rigid code of honor, which drives me nuts, makes you a wonderful human being and I am proud to call you my friend and don’t ever change.”
Although Ron’s code is of his creation, it grounds and defines what freedom means to him. While he holds his libertarian opinions dear, he deeply respects Leslie’s loyalty to her own code. In the final season of the show, he says he hired her because she was “tough and honest, and [she] stood up for what [she] believed in…” and he “would rather work with someone like that than a milque toast yes man.” When freedom is the foundation of a country, leaving every individual to define what freedom means, respect and decency are imperative. In this politically polarized climate where the President makes his debut on Twitter and is immediately met with an onslaught of hateful and racist comments and the Democratic Party sends emails comparing Republican politicians to evil Game of Thrones characters, the political conversation has become a perpetual yelling match, where neither party listens, Ron reminds us of what America lacks.
Although Ron is a grounding presence in the show, he still remains the most elusive character. He grudgingly withholds information about where he lives, where his gold may or may not be buried. He hates being touched, and stiffens whenever anyone attempts to hug him. Finding out something personal about Ron—his love for riddles, which make him giggle with joy, the fact that his first wife works for the IRS—is thrilling. It’s like solving the next clue in a grand mystery. Just as it has remained impossible to pin America down, it is the same with Ron Swanson.
Ron Swanson fills a space, an emptiness that Americans—no matter what their political opinions are—feel in their lives. Ron Swanson reminds his fans that we can begin looking for America in ourselves and in others. The freest places lie in human relationships and not in the agreement of political opinion. In a country that values freedom above all, where that word will always be contested, where it will always elude us, Ron is a small patch of solid ground to stand upon on what is and always will be a shifting foundation.
Elizabeth Adams is a master's student at NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program. She lives in Brooklyn.