The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

Creating Laws in a Democracy

My opinions are as valid as the next man’s!

In a democracy, citizens are entitled to have their voice heard when laws and other government decisions are being made. The Simpsons represents this well. Springfield’s citizens appear to have a high degree of civic responsibility. Town hall meetings are attended by all main characters and many speak their mind on issues. These characters often become the satirical representation of their class, role, or other identity in society. For example:

  • Mayor Quimby represents the elected official
  • Kent Brockman, Channel 6 news anchor, represents the news media
  • Mr. Burns, Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owner, represents the business class
  • Homer and Marge Simpson represent the average middle-class citizen

By intermingling multiple viewpoints into Springfield’s town meetings, The Simpsons is able to present perspectives of many groups who shape society.

Because of this high degree of involvement in local government on The Simpsons, Dr. Pete Woodcock, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Huddersfield, noted that democracy works in Springfield: Local control is exercised through frequently-held public meetings and there is usually a common belief that all citizens are moral equivalents.

Unfortunately, participation alone does not always lead to successful public policy and laws. Springfield’s voters and politicians alike tend to be ill-informed, and act in a self-interested manner.

Taxes and Public Expenditures: Springfield’s Bear Patrol

Dr. John Considine, professor at the College of Business and Law at University College Cork, thought that The Simpsons shows how voters are unable to see the relationship between public expenditures and taxes. He pointed to the season seven episode “Much Apu About Nothing” as evidence.

In “Much Apu About Nothing,” a docile bear roamed into Springfield and destroyed the Simpsons’ mailbox. Incensed, Homer led an angry mob to town hall to complain about bears. Faced with an angry mob, Mayor Quimby agreed to unnecessarily extensive bear patrols. Ground troops and stealth bombers were used to keep Springfield bear-free and the high cost resulted in a tax increase.

Unable to comprehend the bear patrol’s burden on the public purse, Homer once again led an angry mob to town hall, this time to protest high taxes. Unwilling or unable to explain the concept of taxes to the townspeople, Quimby appeased the mob by blaming high taxes on the burden of illegal immigrants living in Springfield.

  1. By blaming illegal immigrants for high taxes, Mayor Quimby deliberately misled voters.
    1. Should Mayor Quimby have explained the concept of taxes and public expenditures to the citizens of Springfield?
    2. Do you think that the general public is more interested in understanding issues facing their community, or would just like quick fixes to problems?
  2. Dr. Considine felt the message in “Much Apu About Nothing” was that citizens want the highest quality of public services, but are unwilling to pay for them. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  3. Mayor Quimby chose to raise taxes instead of borrowing money. Money borrowed to pay for current government services is called a deficit. When governments run deficits, they are providing services for the present taxpayer that will have to be paid for by future taxpayers.
    1. Who benefits the most from deficits? The least?
    2. Can you think of circumstances where government deficits are necessary?
    3. Overall, do you think deficits are a good idea? Why or why not?

Informed Public Debate: Springfield and the Monorail

Andrew Wood and Anne Marie Todd, both Assistant Professors of Communication Studies at San Jose State University, found that The Simpsons “mocks the potential of the masses to demonstrate common sense.” They pointed to the season four episode “Marge vs. The Monorail” as evidence.

In “Marge vs. The Monorail,” Springfield held a special town meeting to determine how to spend a three million dollar windfall. Many divergent ideas were put forth but when Marge suggested investing the money in rebuilding Springfield’s Main Street, the townsfolk seemed to agree. Before the citizens could vote on Marge’s proposition, a fast-talking huckster suddenly appeared, and he sold Springfield on a mass transit monorail, claiming it will put Springfield on the map.

The Monorail proved to be a complete failure and the huckster ran off with Springfield’s money. Even if the monorail had been properly constructed, Springfield is a small community with a centralized population, which means a mass transit system was not necessary.

  1. Many residents of Springfield come to town hall to decide how the three million dollars should be spent. Do you think this kind of involvement in local politics happens in your community? Should it?
  2. What does this episode say about how informed the average voter is on civic issues? Do you think the town hall meeting would have been different if the voters were more in tune with the needs of their community?
  3. Consider major projects that have taken place in your community.
    1. Did you or anybody you know contribute to the local political debate surrounding the issue?
    2. Is there a risk that this project could or has already become a large waste of money, such as Springfield’s monorail?