Cover image for the HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero with Nick Wasicsko answering questions at a microphone.

Teaching Civics and Government with Show Me a Hero

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Show Me a Hero is an HBO mini-series that follows the conflict over segregation in affordable housing in Yonkers. It chronicles the rise and fall of Nick Wasicsko as he tries to successfully navigate the racial politics of his divided city. It’s from the creator of The Wire, David Simon, and it meets the high expectations that sets.

Show Me a Hero is not only a well told story, it’s an excellent vehicle for discussing key concepts in civics and government. It illustrates some of the nuts and bolts of municipal government and campaigning, and it illuminates the tension between policy and politics. It’s clearly set in a different era, but the issues it raises about racial tensions and populism are beyond relevant.

The entire mini-series is about six hours long, so this would be a good opportunity to be creative and either organizing a movie screening or a regular movie club.

Show Me a Hero Plot Summary

In case you haven’t seen the show, and I highly recommend that you do, here’s a brief plot summary. There’s a bit of a surprise ending, so I won’t spoil that for you, but this will contain some “spoilers” about events occurring in the first few episodes.

Show Me a Hero takes place in Yonkers, N.Y. in the late 1980’s. At the outset of the story, Nick Wasicsko is a young city councilman. The city of Yonkers has been taken to court over alleged segregation in public housing, and the courts had ordered the city to prepare a plan for integrating public housing throughout the city.

This issue – whether or not the city will build public housing on the “white” part of town – will sharply divide the city. When Nick Wasicsko sees that the electorate blames the current mayor, longtime incumbent Angelo Martinelli, for this situation, he decides to run for mayor himself. He campaigns on a platform of opposition to the housing plan, and he rides an angry wave of activism to a narrow victory.

Once Wasicsko becomes mayor, though, he faces the tough task of actually governing. After exhausting all of its legal options, the city is given a stark choice. It can build the proposed housing units, or it must pay increasing fines for failing to obey the court order. Mayor Wasicsko attempts to broker a compromise and to get the housing approved by the city council, but several council members refuse. They see themselves as representatives of the angry, white population of Yonkers, and they refuse to vote for a plan to build public housing in their neighborhoods.

Things begin to unravel for Wasicsko. The once rising star is losing control of his city, and he can’t seem to safely navigate the racially charged waters of Yonkers politics. The story routinely bounces back and forth between the political drama of Wasicsko’s rise and fall and the story of Yonkers residents who are impacted by the city’s decisions.

Civics and Government Themes in Show Me a Hero

I love Show Me a Hero because it combines great story-telling with relevant political issues. It’s a story that students will find engaging, and it provides fodder for some great discussions.

Here are a few ideas that you could focus on in your discussions after watching the show.

Campaigning Is Not the Same As Governing

This is one of the central themes of the show. Campaigning is a not governing. Wasicsko and other Yonkers politicians repeatedly make promises that they know they can’t keep. They’ll fight the housing plan, they’ll never implement housing, they’ll stand up to the courts. They consistently play to their base, manipulating people’s fear and anger to get elected.

It gets a little murkier if you try and figure out whether this is intentional or not. Does Wasicsko really think that he can ignore the housing mandate? Is he being naive or manipulative? What about the other people on the council? This concept plays out in every campaign from student council to United States President. You don’t have to look far into the past to find examples of campaign promises that seem outlandish and impossible.

Being an Executive is Not the Same as Being a Legislator

On a similar but subtly different note, this is a perfect example of how the roles of legislators and executives are different. They all serve in government, but they face different pressures to act and different luxuries as well. When Wasicsko is a city councilman, he can easily oppose the housing plan without facing any real consequences. Likewise, when he becomes mayor his opponents on the council are comfortable in staking out a rigid position of opposition.

Once he becomes mayor, Wasicsko starts to realize that he can’t be so ideological. He has to actually get stuff done, and if he’s unwilling to compromise then he won’t be successful. This is a familiar problem at the national level. Both tea party conservatives and Bernie-style liberals stake out extreme positions in Congress, even though these positions are not politically feasible. This kind of legislative activity is great for campaigning, but it’s not so great for governing. It’s also support for the argument thatall political experience is not equal, and that mayors and governors may make better presidents than state legislators or Congressmen.

Do You Represent Your Constituents, Your City, or Your Ideals?

In political science speak, there is a distinction between the delegate model and the trustee model. Delegates make decisions based on what their constituents say. Trustees make decisions based on what they think is best for their city or best in light of their ideals.

The decisions faced by the city government of Yonkers bring this issue to the forefront. Clearly, it’s not in the city’s best interests to fight the housing decision. They ought to obey the court, build integrated public housing, and move on with their lives. But many Yonkers voters oppose this loudly and adamantly. What should a young mayor or city council member do?

Some Things Should Not Be Subject to Majority Rules

We live in a democratic society. Generally speaking that means that some form of majority rules is our best way to come to a decision. But not everything should be put up for a vote. Issues impacting minorities – including issues of segregation – are a perfect example of the reason we have checks, balances, and an independent judiciary.

If subject to the tyranny of the majority, the minority will never be able to secure their own rights. In this case, the courts are prepared to force integration but the voters of Yonkers never would.

An Active Community Has Power, But Also Bears Responsibility

Finally, the the city council meetings is a great illustration of how much power the community has. If the council chambers are full of angry constituents, the council members will take notice. It’s important to note that it’s not one or two people there, it’s an entire community.

At the same time, one has to feel some sympathy for the city council. The council members know the right thing to do, but how do you ignore that many angry people?

Watch Show Me a Hero With Your Class

Those are just five ideas that I had for relating Show Me a Hero to your civics and government class. There are tons of other things you could draw on. Really, the amount of campaign and political themes is endless.

So grab a copy of Show Me a Hero and take the time to watch this with your class if you can. Then drop a comment below and let us know what your students thought about the show.

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