How The Politics Of 'The West Wing' Ruined America

Post by: Rick Ellis 09 June, 2021

As someone who has made a living online since the dinosaur days, I am well aware of the fact that the headline of this piece might seem like just another attempt by some random web monkey looking to generate a bunch of cheap clicks. But in the same way that the old adage "even a broken clock is right twice a day" is indeed true, even though this piece has a clickbait premise, it is also an idea that is sadly more true than any of us might want to admit.

Aaron Sorkin's political series The West Wing ran for seven seasons on NBC and it is rightfully considered to be one of the best television series in history. Grounded in Sorkin's beliefs in a country that can be a reflection of our better natures, the show followed the struggles and triumphs of the presidential administration of Martin Sheen's unabashedly liberal Josiah "Jed" Bartlett. An economist and former Governor of New Hampshire, Bartlett and his staff were a group of reflective, driven technocrats who mostly believed that any problem can be solved with the application of just the right combination of facts, persuasion and appeals to patriotism and a sense of what's right. Sure, that are some evil people in the world. But the show is woven together with the belief that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

And because the show was so well-written, because it felt as if there was some direct connection between what was on the screen and what took place in real-life politics, a generation of liberals grew up seeing the politics of The West Wing as a portrayal of what Washington politics could be. Despite all evidence to the contrary. This generation saw the arena of national politics as a meritocratic world where smart, well-meaning people argued passionately as they walked down long hallways. Sure, there were some bad players in the world. But the serious people - the ones that wanted to be on the right side of history - found common ground thanks to heartfelt discussions of the facts. Minds could be changed on the right, they believed, if only they would stop and listen to the truth.

In many ways, Barack Obama was The West Wing president. A smart, charismatic outsider who could articulately dissect an obscure economics theory while also talking confidently about each and every tune on his Spotify playlist. He saw himself as being the bridge to people on the other side of the political spectrum and his ability to reach voters who saw his vision led them to believe that even his opponents would have to acknowledge the sincerity and intellectual correctness of his beliefs.

But as it turned out, Obama's opponents did not see The West Wing as a blueprint for the way political discourse should take place. Conservatives were soon arguing that America's first African-American president was "the most decisive president in history" and that he "made everything about race." There were claims that he hated America, was a secret Socialist, an acolyte of radicals, a fraud who wanted to destroy the American way of life. Obama accomplished some important things over his eight years, but it's worth noting that he did it without any help from conservatives or anyone who self-described as Republican. 

Yet it's notable that in recent interviews Obama still seems to be wedded to this Jeb Bartlett view of politics. He will concede that Republicans weren't cooperative and were often actively working against him to block policies he still believes are good for Americans. He has recently admitted that these beliefs might even threaten democracy. But he also still believes that it is possible to change minds, to reach out to opponents, and open their minds in the same way that Richard Schiff's Toby Ziegler changed the conversation by crafting just the perfect turn of a phrase.

And you can see this strain of delusional thinking wrapped inside large swaths of liberal politics and the media. The reflexive need by journalists to weigh the sins and accomplishments of both sides equally in order to be intellectually fair. The unwillingness of liberal media outlets to hone their messaging with the drill-like precision exhibited by conservative media outlets. As I was flipping around the AM radio dial earlier this week, I heard Sean Hannity still pounding away at Hillary Clinton's use of the phrase "deplorables" - a phrase she used so long ago that there are now high school students who weren't alive when she said it. But he repeats it because it's effective shorthand and it sticks in the brains of listeners. As opposed to what I heard on my local progressive talk station, where the host was promising to have a "rational" discussion without shouting. Which is pretty much everything you shouldn't say if you want a broadcast that is both entertaining and effective.

We live in a country where large parts of the conservative world believe Donald Trump is the rightful president, we would have better off if the country has stayed completely open during the pandemic, that every blue state urban area is an Antifa-terrorized hellscape, that government should be weaker and less effective and that the left wants America to be a Socialist, Godless roving crime scene where Whites are hunted down on the streets like big game. There is no clever turn of a phrase that can change these minds. No meeting in the middle where both sides can discover the things they have in common.

That unwillingness to listen to conflicting views is why conservative media figures ranging from Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt to Dennis Prager and Dan Bondgino don't have anyone from the Left on their shows. Not only are they intellectually uninterested in a dialogue, a little voice inside their heads worries that listeners hearing an opposing view might realize they are running a factual con job. So for media critics to argue "we have to do more fact-checking on their lies" feels more like something press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) would make to the press corps. It's an approach that embraces the political norms in a way that would UK's pre-WWII prime minister Chamberlain proud.

The West Wing is a wonderful television show and it's fine to see it as an aspirational ideal for America. But it's past time for those of us on the left to stop seeing it as a working model for the way America should be governed.

It's time to give up the Sorkin-esque dream of American politics.

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Last modified on Thursday, 10 June 2021 00:48