Political Analysis of the TV Show The Office (US Version)
Way back in the day, when I was actually in college and young, I was a political science major and therefore, as you might guess, I took a lot of political science course work. One of my professors liked to use his own book which he had written as required reading for courses he taught. Which was good and dandy, because it was a helpful book. The book was called Understanding Politics, and it delineated various political cultures that exist in the world and within countries. The book took the approach of what my professor called a "prismatic analysis". This meant that you could examine politics by looking at it from the perspective that there are a set of political cultures each with their own set of paradigms (ideas) that they follow and each has its own set of roles prescribed to various people and institutions in society. That's my simplistic explanation of the prismatic analysis. Thank you very much.
At any rate, I love that show The Office. I watch it religiously, but really didn't start to watch it until it was off the air, so I've been playing catch up watching all the old re-runs. While watching it those old political science lessons couldn't help but bubble to the surface of my tired brain and start to work on the show. Basically, what I mean is, I couldn't help but notice that the show reveals various political cultures through its characters.
The show itself is a good dose of reality. I recognize each personality on the show as people I've actually met. The funny and fun Jim Halpert, the regimented Dwight Schrute, the misguided Michael Scott. And I recognize their lives. They are everybody's lives.
Here I present to you my political analysis of the show, by looking at each character and which political culture they belong to.
Jim Halpert The Struggling Anarchist
One of the political cultures in the prismatic analysis is Anarchism. Mostly this culture is marked by a total lack of any kind of control. It is a political culture that runs relatively smoothly in small groups; like tribes and extended families. While no institutionalized control is in place, there is some control through tradition and group norms.
Jim Halpert shows his Anarchist side particularly in one episode in which the boss, Michael Scott, has left and the office is left without any supervision. Jim makes the statement that people are very capable of getting work done without any kind of control levied on them.
Of course, Jim is torn between his Anarchist tendencies and his need for security. Therefore, in so many ways, he is basically a conformist. But one of those mildly rebellious kind. Those kind you often find in societies in which people are told they are free, but instead they are controlled. In one episode, when boss Michael quits his position and decides to start his own paper company, Jim counsels him to find another job rather than venture out into the unknown. Jim himself is often horrified that he's stuck in a 9 to 5, but fears going out on his own.
However, Jim is the office prankster, coping with his imprisonment by pulling pranks on his co-worker and arch-nemesis Dwight Schrute, the office know-it-all and quasi-Nazi. Sabotage is a known tactic of militant anarchists of more recent times, a way of coping with their oppressive predicaments in the workplace.
Eventually we find Jim breaking free from his work slavery and venturing out on his own in business, before the show is over. And he still finds happiness and security with his wife Pam and their children.
Dwight Schrute The Fascist Corporatist
Fascist Corporatists are marked by a clinging to tradition, a need for coercive control and a belief in the corporate group and keeping it safe and intact. Dwight is pretty much all of these things. He believes in authority. He wants authority and cow-tows to the authority of the boss Michael Scott. He often beckons to tradition and believes in enforcing the rules, by force if necessary. In this way, he seems quite uptight and looks at things in a very regimented but divisive way; though he figures all of this is done to protect his group, his branch of the company he works for. Because he is thus basically oppressive, yet simple-minded (no surprise there), Jim takes every opportunity to foul him up with a complex array of pranks.
Michael Scott: Tory Corporatist or Radical Liberal?
I suppose there's leeway here. Maybe the political cultures overlap with some people. I think maybe they do with Michael. Not only that, but there is common ground with many political cultures and this is why they form coalitions in Parliament where there exists multi-party systems.
Tory Corporatists, like the Fascists, believe in the corporate group; their group. They believe in taking care of their group. But within their group there are many corporate groups. This comes from the origins of the Tory, which is found in the Monarchy. The monarchy was a big family and had many sub-families; blacksmiths, knights, farmers. Each group was pretty independent but owed allegiance to the bigger group. Similar to the Fascist, minus the violence.
Michael believes in the group, the family, even while he asserts his authority. He believes each group works well independently; accountants over there, salespeople over here. He doesn't interfere, but he wants them to know he's the boss. But he also wants them to know they're family.
What I find interesting about Michael is that he wants to take care of everyone, even when it goes against corporate policy. He wants to give them the best health care, wants them to have time off when they need it, often even when it goes against corporate orders. In this way, he makes me think of the Radical Liberal. The Radical Liberal is a believer in the system of capitalism, wants to keep it intact, but wants reforms that will even the playing field and offer more opportunities for those disadvantaged by the system. They recognize the inherent inequality of the system but don't want to fully change it; just make it "better". Though selfish enough to be part of the system, Michael still does think of others and their needs; as part of his family (his employees). At the same time, he only really cares about his group, his branch of the company; in this way, he swings to the Tory Corporatist end of the spectrum.
Jim Pulls Hilarious Prank on Dwight
Ryan - Classical Liberal
Ryan is the young and ambitious office worker who is out for himself and doesn't care what effect it has on others. He cherishes the power he has and uses people for his own ends. A true, down-to-the-bone, hard-core capitalist. This is also a characteristic of the Classical Liberal. Classical Liberals are conservative capitalists, every man for himself and no need to help anyone. That is essentially their mind-set. One's own self interest and determination is enough. Let the chips fall where they may. That is Ryan in a nutshell.
Your favorite Jim Halpert Prank
Special Mentions: Jan Levinson and Angela
Jan Levinson is a character that exemplifies many wrong things about our culture. She is ruthless with her authority and hypocritical with her ethics. She is seemingly prudish about office romance, but can't help but sexually exploit and dominate a vulnerable Michael Scott. She also espouses a feminist ideology which, fittingly, is hypocritically and paradoxically contradictory to her own uncaring and unfair treatment of people. She's uptight and unreachable. A true horror of a human being. We've all met her. She could fit into either "Liberal" category, I've seen such behavior from both.
Angela, Dwight's love interest, is prudish and uptight, ready to call every woman in the office a harlot, while she promiscuously sleeps with more than one man at work. She is the traditionalist, attracted to Dwight's prowess, no matter how fake it is, and yearns for a traditional family. She seems fitting for a Fascist.
So, those are the political cultures I could glean from the characters on The Office. Cultures not covered are Democratic Socialist, Oligarchy (possibly covered by the character of Andy, though) and Marxist-Lenninist. As far as I can tell, they are not represented by characters on the show, though Michael is borderline Democratic-Socialist (but we won't get into that here). This most likely is because the show is representative of American culture, very well-conveyed on the program, and the cultures I found in the show are the ones most prevalent in the US.
And that's what I like about the show; it truly portrays American culture and the personalities you encounter at work (and elsewhere for that matter). It deals with the issue of being imprisoned by the job and daring to think of escaping it and doing something valuable and meaningful for yourself. Certainly, the writers and actors tapped into something of the soul of America, as troubled or as vibrant as it is. The people of Dunder-Mifflin, though finding themselves stuck in the prison that is the workplace, discover that it is still their lives that they are living at the job, and find that in that place of employment that bores them, that distresses them, there is still love and happiness.