Politics is a common theme in the animated television series The Simpsons, and this phenomenon has had some crossover with real American politics. U.S. conservatives voiced opposition to the show early in its run, when it was still controversial for its crude humor and irreverent take on family values. Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush said that the U.S. needed to be closer to The Waltons than to The Simpsons. The show's admitted slant towards liberalism has been joked about in episodes such as "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular", in which a reference is made to "hundreds of radical right-wing messages inserted into every show by creator Matt Groening". More recently, however, conservative bloggers and commentators have enthusiastically promoted cultural memes from the series, such as Groundskeeper Willie's derisive term for the French, "cheese-eating surrender monkeys".
Political topics addressed on The Simpsons include homophobia and gay marriage (in the episodes "Homer's Phobia" and "There's Something About Marrying"), immigration and border control (“Much Apu About Nothing,” “Midnight Rx”, “Coming to Homerica”), drug and alcohol abuse ("Brother's Little Helper", "Weekend at Burnsie's", "Smoke on the Daughter", "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment", "Duffless", "E-I-E-I-(Annoyed Grunt)", and "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses"), gun rights ("The Cartridge Family"), environmental issues ("The Old Man and the Lisa", "Trash of the Titans", "Lisa the Tree Hugger", "The Wife Aquatic", "The Squirt and the Whale", in addition to being an important plot device in the feature-length film), election campaigns ("Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish", "Sideshow Bob Roberts", "Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington", "See Homer Run", "E Pluribus Wiggum", "Politically Inept, with Homer Simpson"), and corruption ("Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington").
Some commentators say the show is political in nature and has a left-wing bias. Al Jean stated in an interview that "We [the show] are of liberal bent." The writers often evince an appreciation for progressive ideals, but the show makes jokes across the political spectrum. In the DVD commentaries, creator Matt Groening and the majority of people who work on the show state several times that they are very liberal, but some, such as John Swartzwelder (the writer of many episodes), are libertarian. So the two main political parties of Springfield, the Republicans and the Democrats, reside in a stereotype Draculan castle, and in a public salad bar respectively; the on/off Mayor, Joe Quimby is represented as a Democrat and Sideshow Bob as a Republican during his brief tenure as Mayor. Occasionally third parties are also mentioned on the show, such as in the episode "When Flanders Failed", Flanders in danger of losing the title to his struggling fledgling Leftorium store, which was due to become headquarters for Springfield's Libertarian Party, which Flanders hopes will do better than his store. The show portrays government and large corporations as callous entities that take advantage of the common worker. Thus, the writers often portray authority figures in an unflattering or negative light. In The Simpsons, politicians are corrupt, ministers such as Reverend Lovejoy are indifferent to churchgoers, and the local police force is both incompetent and corrupt.
On January 27, 1992, President George H. W. Bush made a speech during his re-election campaign that ignited the feud between the Simpsons and the Bushes. At that point family values were the cornerstone of Bush's campaign platform. So he gave the following speech at the National Religious Broadcaster's convention in Washington. "The next value I speak of must be forever cast in stone. I speak of decency, the moral courage to say what is right and condemn what's wrong, and we need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons. An America that rejects the incivility, the tide of incivility and the tide of intolerance".
The next broadcast of the Simpsons was a rerun of the third-season premiere, "Stark Raving Dad" (1991), on January 30, 1992. In that broadcast there was hastily included a new opening, which was a response to Bush's speech. The scene begins in the Simpsons living room. Homer, Patty, and Selma sit on the couch. Maggie is in her high chair next to the couch. Bart and Lisa are sprawled on the carpet. They all stare at the TV and watch Bush's speech. When Bush says, "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons," Bart replies "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the Depression, too."
The producers of the show developed their response further by making the episode "Two Bad Neighbors" (season 7, 1996), which had Bush move into the same neighborhood as the Simpsons. Josh Weinstein said that the episode is often misunderstood. Many audiences expected a political satire, while the writers made special effort to keep the parody apolitical. Bill Oakley stresses that "it's not a political attack, it's a personal attack!", and instead of criticizing Bush for his policies, the episode instead pokes fun at his "crotchetiness". In contrast, the same episode depicts Republican President Gerald R. Ford as an everyman that is just like Homer. In fact, a later episode, "Homer's Enemy" shows a picture where Homer and Ford are enjoying a beer.
While Bush Senior has been a particular target for The Simpsons, other presidents have also been teased, usually in episodes that corresponds with the president's term. One example showed Bill Clinton playing his well-known saxophone then having Moe yell "Get back to work, Clinton!", a likely remark that during Clinton's first term he gave the image that it was a jolly time to be in office and was seen more doing recreational activities and not official duties.
The episode "E Pluribus Wiggum" (season 19, 2008) caused controversy in Argentina prior to its broadcast there. The controversy is over an exchange between Lenny and Carl. Carl says "I could really go for some kind of military dictator, like Juan Perón. When he 'disappeared' you, you stayed 'disappeared!'". Carl's comment is a reference to the Dirty War, a period of military dictatorship during which as many as 30,000 political dissidents disappeared, and is largely regarded as having begun at least two years after the death of Perón. The clip was viewed on YouTube over ten thousand times in Argentina and some politicians in the country called for the episode to be censored or banned.
Lorenzo Pepe, former Justicialist Party congressman and president of the Juan Domingo Perón Institute, said "this type of program causes great harm, because the disappearances are still an open wound here." Some reacted negatively to Lenny's response to Carl's comment: "Plus, his wife was Madonna", a reference to the film Evita, where Madonna played Eva Perón. Argentinians had protested the filmmakers' decision to cast Madonna in the role of their beloved first lady. Pepe added "the part about Madonna—that was too much." Pepe's request for banning the episode was rejected by the Federal Broadcasting Committee of Argentina on freedom of speech grounds.
In an unprecedented decision, Fox decided not to air the episode in Latin America. In an e-mail sent later to the media, the network said that this decision was based on "the possibility that the episode would contribute to reopen wounds very painful to Argentina". The Federal Broadcasting Committee made it clear that the episode was not aired in Argentina by Fox's own choice.
In 2002, the Rio de Janeiro tourist board found the season 13 episode "Blame It on Lisa" (2002) so offensive to many Brazilian people that they threatened to sue the producers. The board's exact words were "What really hurt was the idea of the monkeys, the image that Rio de Janeiro was a jungle ... It's a completely unreal image of the city". The Brazilian president at that time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, found it to be "a distorted vision of Brazilian reality". Rio de Janeiro had just spent millions promoting the city internationally. Their reputation was already damaged because of an outbreak of dengue fever a few years earlier. Producer James L. Brooks apologized to "the lovely city of Rio de Janeiro", adding that "if this does not settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to fight with the Brazilian president on Celebrity Boxing". After the apology, the issue did not go any further. However it was international news for a while.
"Blame It on Lisa" has been a source of academic studies in both the United States and Brazil. Alessandro de Almeida, a History master from the Federal University of Uberlândia, links the depiction of Brazil in the episode with the "social chaos" of Cardoso's second term as president. In his opinion, "the association of the figure of president Fernando Henrique Cardoso with those of the decaying celebrities of Celebrity Boxing is interesting to think about the political meaning of the episode". At that moment, in which Brazil was facing serious social issues due to the Asian financial crisis, "confidence in the Brazilian federal government was severely shaken and the image of the Brazilian president was undoubtedly in decline". He also argues that the episode's criticism "is not focused only in Brazil", citing that while "in the U.S. Bart use to watch violent cartoons, in Brazil he watches 'educational' programs linked to sexuality". The character's scape from reality, according to him, "demonstrates problems of contemporary societies". He concluded his article by saying that the episode could generate a debate about the Cardoso administration that would benefit the Brazilian society, had it not been banned from broadcast television airing by Rede Globo.
"Cheese-eating surrender monkeys", sometimes shortened to "surrender monkeys", is Groundskeeper Willie's insulting phrase referring to the French, which gained notoriety in the United States, particularly in the run-up to the Iraq War. The phrase was first popularized in the Simpsons episode "'Round Springfield" (season 6, 1995). Groundskeeper Willie, the school janitor, an unkempt immigrant from Scotland, is teaching French due to budget cuts, dressed in a striped jumper and a beret. He greets the class with (in heavy Scottish accent) "Bonjourrrrrrrrr, yah cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys!"
The line was first picked up and used predominantly by Republican American politicians and publications. They were led, according to the British national newspaper The Guardian, by Jonah Goldberg, a popular columnist for the U.S. bi-weekly National Review and editor of their website National Review Online. Goldberg's online-only column, the G-File, is written in a more casual, personal manner and in the late 1990s often contained Simpsons (and other pop-cultural) references. Goldberg's repeated aggressive use of the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" led to its more widespread use amongst his readers, although Goldberg had stopped using it by the time the phrase was gaining mainstream popularity post-9/11.
France opposed many U.S. positions and actions, in particular, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some argue the phrase's success reflects deep antipathy in the U.S. towards countries such as France who oppose the U.S. in international forums. The New York Post resurrected the phrase "Surrender Monkeys" as the headline for its December 7, 2006, front page, referring to the Iraq Study Group and its recommendation that U.S. combat brigades be withdrawn from Iraq by early 2008.
The first Simpsons episode to feature international travel was The Crepes of Wrath, where France was not so much portrayed for its politics, but rather winemaking. Bart is abused by two French winemakers who put him to work without compensation, but are brought to justice when Bart is able to communicate with the French police that the winemakers are adulterating wine with dangerous chemicals. Bart is rewarded by being given the red carpet treatment by the French for the remainder of his stay. The episode seems to parody the stereotype that the French are condescending to Americans, but Bart says "I met one nice French person", remembering the policeman who saved him from the tormentors.
The theme of gun rights were explored in the episode "The Cartridge Family" (season 9, 1997). Sam Simon had pitched an episode for one of the first seasons which saw Homer getting a gun and nobody wanting him to have it. The episode concluded with Homer foiling a robbery and stating that although guns bring destruction, it worked for him. However, this episode was pitched by Scully for either season seven or eight, before being used for season nine. This provided the basic outline, and John Swartzwelder wrote the script. A lot of lines in the episode put guns in a positive light, as the staff felt that they could not just make an episode about how bad they were. Several of the staff are "pro gun" although others, such as Matt Groening, are very left wing and completely against them. That said, the episode was designed to be unbiased and does portray each side of the argument equally. Scully noted that if there is any message in the episode it's that a man like Homer should not own a gun. The censors were nervous about some of the episode's subject matter, such as Homer pointing the gun in Marge's face, and Bart aiming the gun at Milhouse with the apple in his mouth, but ultimately let it go.
The Simpsons have explored lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) themes several times. The first incident was the episode "Simpson and Delilah" (season 2, 1990) in which the character Carl (voiced by Harvey Fierstein) kisses Homer. "Homer's Phobia" (season 8, 1997) was the first episode to entirely revolve around homosexual themes. The episode features the gay character John (John Waters), who is not immediately identifiable as a gay man and does not conform to the typical gay stereotype. After initially being fond of John, Homer acts strongly against him when he finds out about his sexuality ("[But] not because he's gay, because he's a sneak! He should at least have the decency to admit he's ... that way!"). Later Homer accepts John for who he is and is fine with the way he leads his life. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called it "a shining example of how to bring intelligent, fair and funny representations of our community onto television"; and awarded it the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV — Individual Episode. Two later episodes that explored LGBT issues were "Three Gays of the Condo" (season 14, 2003) and "There's Something About Marrying" (season 16, 2005). The latter centered on the right for homosexuals to get married and revealed that Marge's sister Patty was a lesbian. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation described this episode as a "ray of light".
The character Waylon Smithers was presumed to be gay and came out in the season 27 episode "The Burns Cage", in which he briefly dates Julio. Smithers is shown to have a passionate and deep love for Mr. Burns; as late as 2007, during the show's 18th season, Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks wrote in an interview that Smithers, being focused on one particular individual, was not homosexual, but "Burns-sexual". Smithers has occasional fantasies about Burns: in "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy" (season 5, 1994) he turns his computer on and it shows a nude Burns with an audio montage saying: "Hello Smithers. You're quite good at turning me on." Smithers has openly declared his love for Burns on at least three occasions, such as in "Lisa the Skeptic" (season 9, 1997), when, believing the world is ending, Smithers says "Oh, what the hell!" and kisses Burns on the lips, later explaining it to him as "merely a sign of my respect." Another is Smithers' fantasy of a naked Mr. Burns popping out of a birthday cake in "Rosebud" (season 5, 1993). "Marge Gets a Job" (season 4, 1992) has a dream sequence where Smithers is sleeping and Burns flies through a window. The sequence shows Burns flying towards him and Smithers looking happy; the scene causing some controversy due to the positioning by the animators of the character's knee. In the episode "Homer Defined" (season 3, 1991), as they think they are about to die, Smithers tells Burns "Sir, there may never be another time to say: I love you, sir." In "The Burns Cage", Smithers comes out to Burns, who rejects his love.
In a 2006 study conducted by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it was determined that nine of the 679 lead and supporting characters on scripted broadcast television were gay or lesbian, but Smithers was not included. Patty Bouvier, Marge Simpson's lesbian sister, was included on both lists. A list published in 2008 by the same organization included Smithers.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which was in the middle of running a campaign to prevent casual use of the adjective "gay", criticized Nelson Muntz's line "the Grand Pumpkin is super gay" in "Treehouse of Horror XIX" (season 20, 2008). A spokesperson for the GLSEN said "many people say gay without even realizing what they're saying is bad, we're trying to educate people that this is a term that is hurtful to young people when used in a negative way." Several similar jokes have been made throughout the series without controversy.