Strange kid that I was, I only watched one television show with serious regularity through my teenage years. That show was The West Wing. It was certainly better television than the alternatives, but behind the brilliant acting and clever wordplay was an all too accurate insight into our political world, one covered up by the feel-good veneer of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. Pete Davis tells the whole story in a fantastic column over on Front Porch Republic. If you’re a Wingnut, click the link and read it.
I won’t rehash too much of the same territory, but my experience was exactly like Davis’s, and at Georgetown, I found myself surrounded by fellow West Wing junkies who would indeed have watch parties and use the show to inspire their political scheming. Its ethos fed Obama-mania, making people think politics was a simple matter of well-heeled liberals using lofty rhetoric and snappy arguments to drive their opponents into submission. Politics becomes something that wise people off in Washington do for us, not something we ourselves actually do. (Unless, of course, we expected to be those people in Washington someday, which many of us did.) Behind the lofty soundtrack we find an administration that has no great vision, yet somehow manages to come across as brilliant in its advancement of wonky, incremental liberal policies. And we wonder why the Obama Administration has had so much trouble being liked.
I don’t think this is a terrible failing of the show that renders it useless; in fact, it is all too illustrative of the siloed nature of the U.S. political elite. It is a pathology especially common among young college grads, in which people like to think they are not elites and care about the people around them, even dedicate their lives to helping them, yet do so from a distance, quickly losing touch. Internet culture aids this phenomenon, as people group together and only read the media they like and interact with like-minded people. Everyone smiles and feels all happy and warm, nodding gravely at the words of one’s fellow travelers. These people then head out into the world and try to do good and show everyone else the right way, and cannot for the life of them understand why their ideas are so harshly rejected. Political opponents are then labeled “dumb” and “crazy,” and the vicious cycle begins anew.
The West Wing is not a window into politics, you see; it is a window into one very narrow, wonkish dreamland conception of politics. The two shows Davis recommends at the end of the piece are far more accurate portraits of politics, despite the relative lack of actual political institutions. They are also the best two shows that have been on television in my lifetime. The raw grittiness of The Wire and the meditative humanity of Friday Night Lights allow TV to do what film cannot, weaving together stories of lives over five seasons, showing how personalities collide and interact and carve out little spaces for themselves, their ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ ever so fleeting. This is politics in the Greek sense, deeply (small-r) republican and lived out in daily life. While not without their flaws, they come much closer to approximating actual political existence within an inner city (The Wire) and exurban/small-town/rural America (FNL) than any explicitly ‘political’ drama ever could.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the stretch of episodes most West Wing fans would label as its pinnacle is the conclusion of Season Two, when the news of President Bartlet’s long-hidden multiple sclerosis slowly comes out. This stretch is only peripherally about political practice, and is much more about the psychological inner drama of the President’s inner circle and, above all, the President, whose re-election decision hinges on his relationship with a deceased secretary and some daddy issues tied up in his faith. I don’t know if Sorkin and company really intended to create a model for how political culture should work, but on that level, the show fails. The West Wing is at its best when it’s a character study in the vein of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, examining the decisions people make in response to circumstances in their lives, and in revealing the thought processes of people caught up within a particular silo. Its reach is deep, but it is not broad, and if we try to pretend it is so, we’ve taken a good show too far and ruined it.
Like Davis, I still enjoy aspects of The West Wing, and have it to thank for much of my childhood political interest. In a roundabout way, it led me to where I am now. But its political culture is a terrible guide, and leads toward some sort of humility-free, revenge-of-the-nerds world that will never get us anywhere. The few reality checks are maudlin, and the characters are too caught up in their destinies as political operatives to ever show the rest of us the way. Washington will never change if we continue to think of it as a battleground, or a prize to be won. That process must start at home, and in practicing a humane politics in the places we live. If we’re looking for the good life, the Taylors of Dillon, Texas are far better guides than Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborn.