I have some regrettable news to share - Ron Swanson, the beloved libertarian curmudgeon on Parks & Rec, actually sucked. Like, perhaps one of the worst characters in sitcom history. And yes - I know he was impeccably acted by Nick Offerman, that he had some of the show's best moments and line deliveries, and that he could often be the heart of a show already bursting with lovable characters and emotionally-charged relationships.
But the thing is - he sucked. Worse than Mark Brendanawicz. I'm serious.
1. He stands in the way of Leslie's career (while exploiting her)
One of the key aspects - if not THE key aspect - to the mystery that was Ron Swanson is his libertarian worldview, typically contrasted against Leslie Knope's unceasing optimism in the power and inherent meaningfulness of the government. In another show, this could have been just a fun quirk, used to mine humor and perhaps even genuine insight into the issues that plague our real world governments. Take King of the Hill's Dale Gribble - notoriously anti-government (albeit for more paranoia-related reasons than Ron), but also generally harmless.
The real problem with Ron's extreme libertarian POV is that he and (pretty much) every other character on the show (who we're supposed to believe in the goodness and integrity of) actually work for the government. Not only that, but Ron is (at least, on paper) literally in charge of the Parks Department for Pawnee. Its success, righteousness, and effectiveness all fall on Ron's shoulders. While he believes government is inherently corrupt, inefficient, and hindering, he actively has the opportunity to make his department a model of how he believes government SHOULD work. What does he do instead?
For the most part, nothing.
He justifies his total lack of attentiveness and responsibility to the wise decision of pawning off all of the real world to Leslie - who has more passion, energy, and fire in her than Ron could ever hope to muster for government work. Which would be fine, if he also saw fit to step aside and allow Leslie to actually have the job title she deserves. Instead, Leslie does all of the work (and more), while Ron keeps the superior title and pay. Ron is almost a parody metaphor of the patriarchy - making women do fifty times the work for a fraction of the pay a man makes.
Ron somehow justifies being constantly critical of the government for waste and inefficiency when HE HIMSELF is one of the chief causes of the department's waste and inefficiency - and when there's a very clear answer to making the department more efficient and better-run: by promoting Leslie and stepping aside. Ron knows this, and sees very clearly how unbelievably excellent Leslie is at her job - and refuses to get out of her way, despite supposedly hating his own job for a government he despises.
* the show DOES acknowledge this and rectifies it in the 7th and final season - but in those interim six seasons, Ron is genuinely undeserving of everything he has.
2. He's a goddamn hypocrite
Ron's absolute refusal to commit any aspect of himself to his actual job (or to trying to make his town's government successful in any way) could make sense and work, if pretty much every other aspect of his character were different. But the problem is that the other key aspect to Ron Swanson is his (supposed) ironclad sense of work ethic. Ron Swanson believes in working hard, in giving your all, and never slacking off. And he does! In woodworking, basketball coaching, carpentry, and - uh - virtually every aspect of life EXCEPT his actual job.
Ron doesn't try at all - he avoids meeting anyone if he can help it, he avoids doing any bit of paperwork if he can help it, and he is constantly pushing off his responsibilities onto anyone foolish enough to take them (usually Leslie). And yet Ron is also constantly reminding the other characters (and the viewers) how deeply he believes in the meritocracy of capitalism - how the hardest working rise to the top, and anyone poor or unsuccessful merely got that way because they didn't try hard enough. Standing in square opposition to this philosophy is none other than himself - despite not caring, not trying, and never working hard, Ron was made the head of the Parks Department.
What's even stranger is why he got into the Parks Department in the first place. He HATES the government. He hates government workers and the entire idea that a ruling body could impose any of its will over private citizens and businesses. And yet - that's his chosen career path for the majority of the show. Something he hates and explicitly thinks is stupid and wasteful.
Basically, Ron Swanson is a goddamn hypocrite.
3. He is an absolute asshole to his only friends in the world and actively seeks to ruin their lives
Ron Swanson hates the government - hates what it represents, what it does, and the people who work there (excluding himself, presumably). His own explanations/justifications for his own status as a government employee is that he's trying to "take it down from the inside"...which is demonstrably false, given he allows Leslie - an employee he knows to be exceedingly competent and hard-working - to do most things successfully. But it's implied that - despite his icy, distant exterior - Ron does truly care for his co-workers, particularly Leslie. Parks & Rec - much moreso than most shows - is one of optimism, that wants us to root for and love its characters.
It's honestly one of the most endearing and amazing things about Parks & Rec - by and large, these are warm, empathetic characters who care deeply about one another and that we, as an audience, also care about. It's what makes the shows impeccable series finale work so perfectly - we want to see wonderful happy endings for all of these characters because we know how sweet and caring and deserving they are (even Gerry). They're what Friends was always supposed to be under it's awful plot machinations and dumb humor - a show about the connections we form and their importance. It was heartwarming, through and through, to watch these characters support and fight for one another.
Except one character supporting them. And that character is Ron Swanson.
Ron Swanson wants nothing more than for the utter elimination and disassembly of any and all government offices - including his own, the Pawnee Parks Department. The jobs of his co-workers, how much the parks mean to the town, the passion Leslie feels for everything she does as part of her job? These things mean nothing to Ron.
And this strange disdain for the only people in his life he cares about finally gets its moment in the spotlight at the end of season 2, when a budget crisis forces a government-wide shutdown and the looming spectre of massive cuts to budgets and personnel. For characters like Leslie and Tom and Donna and Gerry, this puts their careers and livelihoods in a dangerously precarious situation - basically, everything they've ever worked for is in jeopardy. And how does Ron react?
Granted, once he's actually faced with the reality of Leslie specifically losing her job, he attempts to (finally) quit to spare her. But he had to know this was in the cards, right? He was so giddy about pushing for enormous cuts to every department, how could he not expect this would eventually lead to employees being let go in his own? Hell, he pretty much explicitly tells Ben that Gerry is disposable right off the bat. He brought this on the very people he cared about and who worked for him, and that's pretty goddamn low.
Oh, and also - he actively gets excited at the prospect of someone he works with DYING. I mean, I'm not a huge fan of the government, but if I worked for the government, I definitely would think twice before cheering on one of my co-workers actually dying.
And really, all of this would be a lot funnier if Ron were portrayed similarly to Dwight from The Office - a goofy weirdo who we weren't really supposed to like at all. But it's pretty clear the writers want us to like Ron, and think he's one of the more logical, honorable characters on the show - when the truth is that he's pretty much the polar opposite.
Ron Swanson is definitely capable of being funny and lovable and entertaining - after all, his obsession with breakfast food, puzzles, and jazz are all genuinely delightful - but he's also just a complete dick a lot of the time. Remember that this is how he treated Ann, that poetic noble land mermaid.
ANN IS A BEAUTIFUL, TALENTED, BRILLIANT, POWERFUL MUSK OX, AND I WILL NOT STAND ANYONE TREATING HER THIS WAY.