'King of the Hill' Democrats?: "If politicians and pundits are really so desperate to understand the values of conservative America without leaving their living rooms, then they should start setting the TiVo to record another animated sitcom...despite its general policy of eschewing politics, somehow continues to offer the most subtle and complex portrayal of small-town voters on television: ''King of the Hill,'' on Fox. North Carolina's two-term Democratic governor, Mike Easley, is so obsessed with the show that he instructs his pollster to separate the state's voters into those who watch ''King of the Hill'' and those who don't so he can find out whether his arguments on social and economic issues are making sense to the sitcom's fans.
For those who have somehow missed ''King of the Hill'' during its nine-year run, here's a lightning-quick primer: It revolves around a classic American everyman, the earnest Hank Hill, who sells ''propane and propane accessories'' in the small town of Arlen, Tex. Hank lives with his wife, Peggy, a substitute Spanish teacher who can't really speak Spanish, and his son, Bobby, a sensitive class clown who exhibits none of his father's manliness. (''This is a carburetor,'' Hank tells his son. ''Take it apart, put it back together; repeat until you're normal.'')
The composition of the audience for ''King of the Hill'' is telling. You might expect that a spoof of a small-town propane salesman and his beer-drinking buddies would attract mostly urban intellectuals, with their highly developed sense of irony. In fact, as Governor Easley long ago realized, the show's primary viewer looks a lot like Hank Hill. According to Nielsen Media Research, the largest group of ''King of the Hill'' viewers is made up of men between the ages of 18 and 49, and almost a quarter of those men own pickup trucks. 'This is only the second show that's a comedy about the South -- this and 'Andy Griffith' -- that doesn't make fun of Southerners,' Easley told me recently, adding that Hank and his neighbors remind him of the people he grew up with in the hills near Greenville. (Which is probably why Easley does startlingly good impressions of the various characters, including the verbally challenged Boomhauer.)
Easley polls surprisingly well for a Democrat among these voters, and he says he thinks that understanding the show's viewers might resolve some of the mysteries confronting his party about the vast swaths of red on the electoral map. Easley is reasonably progressive -- he raised taxes during his first term to protect education spending -- but he's also known as a guy who cracked up a race car during a spin on a Nascar course. When the governor, a former prosecutor, prepares to make his case on a partisan issue, he likes to imagine that he's explaining his position to Hank -- an exercise that might be useful for his colleagues in Washington too. For instance, Easley told me that Hank would never support a budget like the one North Carolina's Senate recently passed, which would drop some 65,000 mostly elderly citizens from the Medicaid rolls; Hank, after all, has pitched in to support his own father, a brutish war veteran, and he would never condone a community's walking away from its ailing parents. Similarly, Hank may be a lover of the environment -- he was furious when kids trashed the local campground -- but he resents self-righteous environmentalists like the ones who forced Arlen to install those annoying low-flow toilets. Voters like Hank, if they had heard about it on the evening news, would have supported Easley's ''Clean Smokestacks'' law, which forced North Carolina's coal-powered electric plants to burn cleaner, but only because industry was a partner in the final bill, rather than its target. "