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The West Wing And American Politics

Though it’s been off the air for six years now, Aaron Sorkin’s political drama The West Wing remains a favorite of many people who are observers and commentators of the political scene. It’s quite easy to see why. After all, what other television show has ever done an entire episode about a Senate filibuster, the manner in which White House staffers try to cajole votes for a piece of legislation in Congress, the State Of The Union Address (on multiple occasions), or, of all things, the 25th Amendment and the idea of a Speaker of the House temporarily taking over the Presidency? For political campaign geeks, the re-election campaign of President Bartlet, which covered most of Season Two and part of Season Three, along with the campaign to succeed him that dominated the plots of Seasons Six and Seven, were made to order. Heck, they even had a brokered convention and a Vice-President who died on the night of the Presidential Election. Combine that with generally superior acting and writing throughout the show’s run and you’ve got everything the political geek, and many other Americans, could want.

As Yair Rosenberg explains at The Atlantic, though, the show really isn’t a good guide to understanding what politics is like in the real world:

You wouldn’t think to learn medicine from House or jurisprudence from Law & Order. But can you learn democratic governance from The West Wing? Some people seem to think so. At a ceremony honoring Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedthat politicians in Burma have told her they’ve been attempting to understand democracy by watching Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated show. It’s actually not the first time a foreign official has made such a claim: European Union Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton told Newsweek in 2010 that she learned about America and “the mechanics of Washington life” from being “an avid viewer of The West Wing.” Hillary Clinton, for her part, said she told one of the Burmese politicians that “I think we can do better than that.”

Clinton’s comment has provoked some backlash among West Wing faithful. Writing at the New Yorker, Ian Crouch argues at some length that “Clinton may be wrong in overlooking the power ofThe West Wing as a pedagogical tool.” But Clinton — who has not-insignificant experience in this area — is absolutely right. While The West Wing may be some of the best American television ever produced, it is not a particularly accurate or insightful guide to the actual workings of American democracy. In fact, the very artistic and narrative choices that make it a superb drama make it a very poor representation of politics.

Well, that’s a rather obvious observation, actually. The West Wing was never intended to be a treatise on American democracy or a recitation of history. After all, it existed in a universe where Presidential elections were held in completely different years than those in which we hold Presidential elections, and when it did make reference to former Presidents they were invariably fictional (although Owen Lassiter was quite obviously meant to be a fictionalized Ronald Reagan.) Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that The West Wing did have an influence on people who were involved or interested in politics at the time it aired. For Democrats in the 90′s and 2000′s, it strikes me that it represented an idealized version of the perfect Democratic Presidency. For Republicans, and yes there were and are Republican fans of the show, I would suggest it represented a Democratic Presidency they could admire if not support, sort of a mix between John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman.

And yes, as Rosenberg points out, the whole thing was entirely unrealistic:

Rather than depicting how our government actually functions, The West Wing reflects many popular misunderstandings of it. To begin with, by situating itself in the White House and focusing almost exclusively on the individuals who inhabit it, the show inevitably falls prey to the fallacy of personality-driven politics. Thus, in Sorkin’s fictional universe, a towering presidential figure — Josiah Bartlet — aided by a tireless staff of wunderkinds is able to tackle international and domestic crises through a mix of political dexterity and rhetorical finesse. There are few impasses an eloquent appeal cannot solve, and almost no foreign-policy conundrum for which a clever solution cannot be conceived. Outsiders — from the American people and their electoral preferences to foreign leaders and their national interests — play only bit parts in the ensuing drama.

Consider the following examples: In the show’s sixth season, the charismatic Bartlet locks himself in a room with the Chinese president and — despite being hobbled by an attack of multiple sclerosis — personally secures an unprecedented summit for nuclear talks with North Korea. Now, China and the United States have dramatically different outlooks on everything from human rights to nuclear proliferation, not to mention entirely conflicting systems of governance. The show does not explain how these chasms are bridged. It simply implies that the difficulties of seemingly irreconcilable ideologies and national interests are no match for our protagonist’s force of personality.

Earlier that season, the Bartlet Administration brings peace to the Middle East in much the same fashion. Over the span of a couple episodes, President Bartlet bangs some heads together at Camp David, commits American troops to police Palestine, and conveniently solves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As it turns out, the question of the division of Jerusalem can be resolved through some negotiating jujitsu and a personal plea to Israel’s prime minister, who puts on a good show about how “my right arm will fall off before I ever sign a document giving up Jerusalem” (a nod to Psalm 137:5) before reneging after the commercial break.

The problem is that, contrary to the hopes of screenwriters and viewers everywhere, this is often how democratic politics actually works — through uninspiring compromise and failure. Politicians, no matter how magnetic or persuasive, are constrained by the views of their constituents and countless other factors beyond their control. (Tellingly, the Council of Economic Advisors is all but absent from The West Wing, even as political scientists have shownthat the strength of the economy largely tracks an incumbent president’s reelection prospects, unlike their personality or speeches.)

All of this is true, but as a true fan of the show the thing that would bother me the most would be when the writers would get basic facts so completely wrong. For example, in an early First Season episode, we met a Congressman who was filling the seat that had been vacated when his wife passed away. The plot told us that this man had been appointed to the seat by the Governor of his State. There’s just one problem, when a Congressman dies or resigns the procedure is that a Special Election is scheduled to fill the seat. It’s only when a Senator dies or resigns that the Governor has the authority to appoint a successor, and then only until a Special Election can be held. There was also a glaring inaccuracy in the series finale when President Bartlet remarks that holding Inauguration Day on January 20th was something decided by “Jefferson and Adams.” That’s untrue on two levels. First, Thomas Jefferson was in Paris during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and John Adams was representing the United States at the Court of St. James in London. Second, until the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933, Inauguration Day occurred on March 4th as originally set forth in the Constitution. Minor quibbles? Perhaps, but for a show that had actual historians and political advisers on staff as consultants, it was a glaring error by the writers.

Rosenberg’s bigger point, though, is a good one. For dramatic effect, the show centralized much decision making in the West Wing of the White House and largely exaggerated the roles of the President’s senior advisers. In reality, there are dozens if not hundreds of people who work under them who do much of the grunt work that we end up seeing from any Administration. The other impact of the show, of course, is that it created an idealized version of the Presidency that, unfortunately, tends to reinforce many of the ideas that have supported the Imperial Presidency for decades now. Josiah Bartlet, after all, may have been an economic liberal but he was also a President who ordered the assassination of the Foreign Minister of a purported ally and sent about a hundred thousand troops into Kazakhstan to stand between the armies of Russia and China. And let’s not even get into the whole “President’s daughter kidnapped” plot, although it did provide for some interesting examinations of how the 25th Amendment might actually work in a crisis.

Rosenberg makes one final, compelling point:

Building a democracy around The West Wing’s version of politics, then, is setting one’s self up for disappointment. The show overstates the power of personalities to triumph over fundamental political realities. It exaggerates the import and impact of presidential rhetoric. And it concordantly minimizes the internal and external obstacles even the most well-meaning and capable politicians face when attempting to make policy. Such creative liberties add up to a romanticized portrayal which leads viewers to expect more from their elected officials and government than either can reasonably deliver.

The rise and fall of President Obama in the popular imagination offers a case study in the perils of such magical thinking. If George W. Bush self-identified as the “decider-in-chief,” candidate Obama was seen as a “persuader-in-chief” — a man who through the power of his words and the force of his unique biography would heal partisan divides, ease racial teensions and calm discontent with America in Europe and the Muslim world. As Andrew Sullivan famously put it, Obama’s face and backstory would be “the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan.” In other words, Barack Obama was the avatar of personality-driven politics — and voters signed on for four seasons of the show.

Fast-forward to 2012 and disillusionment has set in, not with Obama so much as the naïve portrait of political life and the power of the presidency his candidacy once represented. In 2008, Obama promised a new era of post-partisan politics. In 2012, humbled by congressional gridlock, an ailing economy, and unrest abroad, he repudiated “the thinking that the president is somebody who is all-powerful and can get everything done.” Which is to say, what plays well on television doesn’t work so well in Washington.

To be fair, I’d argue that the unrealistic vision of the Presidency that The West Wing presented wasn’t necessarily unique to the show itself. As Gene Healy documented in his excellent book The Cult Of The Presidency, the office of the President have become cloaked in an aura of authority and omnipotence that is totally unrealistic which has led to the accumulation of far more power in the hands of one person than the Founding Fathers, or the Constitution, ever intended.  But then, of course, the calm, reserved Presidency of Calvin Coolidge does’t exactly make for good television, does it? Americans want to see the strongman President — think Air Force One or Independence Day — not the guy who actually adheres to the Constitutional limitations of his office. That’s somewhat unfortunate.

I remain a huge West Wing fan. Indeed, I have the complete series box set sitting in a cabinet just a few feet away from me. It was great drama, and Martin Sheen absolutely stole the entire series, which is ironic only because the original plan for the show called for the President to be a minor character. But a realistic view of politics? Not a chance.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. EMRVentures says:

    I enjoyed West Wing, not because it was some televised treatise on government or because it served up a fantasy version of a Democratic president, but because at its best was good TV. As it got older, it seemed to get more bogged down in politics and became less appealing for it.

    The Christmas episode, first season, when Toby arranges an honor guard funeral at Arlington for a homeless vet and drops the president’s name in getting it done, is still one of the best pieces of drama I’ve ever seen on broadcast television.

    “Toby, if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran will start coming out of the woodwork?”

    “I can only hope, Sir.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. Trumwill says:

    This strikes me as making the perfect the enemy of the good. Well, depending on who we’re talking about. Foreign leaders shouldn’t be using it as a primer, but given the ignorance of the average American over the process, you could do *a lot* worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. @EMRVentures:

    That Christmas episode is, in my opinion, one of the finest hours of television, especially, the last 4 minutes and 42 seconds.

    First season too. Marvelsous

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. In my mind, a far better representation of how democratic governments actually work was the British TV show “Yes, Minister”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Fiction and reality tend not to match up very well. In fiction you need character arcs — few real people have them. They tend to become something and remain that same thing until they die, boring us all in the process.

    TV has particular burdens — you have 44 minutes (roughly) usually divided into four acts (although six is becoming more common) and at the end of each act you need some kind of button to close out the scene, and some jeopardy to carry you forward. Then you have to hype your season opener, your breaks, and your season finale. At the same time you have to respond to ratings — the Bartlett popularity being a great example. You have agents and managers bitching that their star didn’t get enough lines, you have pregnancies, rehab, breaks to do features. . . it’s a nightmare, really. Much easier in books.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Trumwill says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, Minister is absolutely brilliant. However, it’s exploring bureaucracy and execution as much as anything. It is an exceptional exploration of those things, though. West Wing is a bit more about structure and structural processes. Well, the not-ridiculous parts of it are.

    When West Wing first came out, I thought it was actually going to be something different than what it was. I didn’t know Sorkin well at that point, else I would have realized. The show I had in mind needs to be made: one in which ideology is irrelevant and idealism is scoffed at.

    Come to think of it, you might need to make it a comedy for it to work. That’s how YM got by.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  7. JKB says:

    There has been some indications that some thought it was all suppose to work like West Wing for Obama. The first was the Healthcare conference where the MSM seemed appalled that the Republicans might have ideas of their own to negotiate from. The debt ceiling “crisis” was another. Still the meme is those terrible Tea Partiers wouldn’t compromise. That’s not exactly the picture painted by Woodward with his story of Obama throwing a last minute ultimatum. But the real “horror” is that the mean old republicans didn’t end up with egg on their face like Josiah Barlett caused when he walked to Congress for the show’s budget showdown.

    Of course, politics in reality isn’t even mediocre television. It’s messy, confusing plots with way to many characters with way to many motivations for even the most avid fan to follow.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  8. Bill says:

    If you believe the West Wing,

    1 Fort Myer is in Maryland
    2 Ontario and Vermont have a border
    3 The Lockheed 1011 was still being made in the 1990s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. george says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    In my mind, a far better representation of how democratic governments actually work was the British TV show “Yes, Minister”.

    I’d agree with that. And actually, though both were good, I prefered “Yes, Minister” and its followup, “Yes, Prime Minister” more …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. homerhk says:

    @george: You should also check out “The Thick of It! which is much more true to life and spawned the great film “In the Loop”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Moosebreath says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I’m a big Yes Minister fan as well. Far more cynical about all concerned. Nobody comes off well, not politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, labor unions, the EU, nobody.

    One of my favorite rants was when Sir Humphrey described the average EU bureaucrat as having the most negative stereotypical qualities of each member state (the work ethic of the Spanish, the generosity of the Dutch, etc.), though when he came to the Britiish, the writers copped out, and instead said and the European spirit of (and named a strongly anti-EU politician.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    the meme is those terrible Tea Partiers wouldn’t compromise.

    Please, people, I beg you, learn how to use the word “meme.” It is not a synonym for “story”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  13. MBunge says:

    As far as idealistic and wrong presentations of how democracy and politics work, that was largely all about Josiah Barlett and his inescapable wonderfulness. If you focused on the other characters, particularly Josh, the show was a good bit better on at least acknowledging the practical realities. I’m particularly thinking about Josh driving a conservative Democratic Senator into leaving the party and joining the GOP.

    Mike

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  14. Rob in CT says:

    the MSM seemed appalled that the Republicans might have ideas of their own

    The GOP didn’t have any such ideas. All they had was bullshit and bluster.

    The funny part was watching people hold up the Healthy Americans Act (Wyden-Bennett) as an alternative to the ACA, and then watching the GOP sponsors flee in terror once (media) people actually started talking about it. And then Bennett got primaried.

    The plan was never to put up a real alternative. The plan was to block the Dems by any means necessary. Hey, it worked in the early 90s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. bk says:

    On the other hand, “24″ and its protagonist Jack Bauer are not only pretty much spot on when it comes to national security, but present an ideal that America should strive for. Well, according to some meathead Supreme Court justice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    The first was the Healthcare conference where the MSM seemed appalled that the Republicans might have ideas of their own to negotiate from.

    I suppose that letting Americans die in the streets is an idea. It’s just not a terribly appealing one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  17. JKB says:

    Okay so some don’t like the Republican ideas but that has nothing to do with this topic. The point was and apparently still is, that the media and the Obama acolytes, but I repeat myself, thought that Obama would call a conference and everyone would “compromise” to his view. This was even the idea when Obama jetted off to get the Olympics only to be sent packing empty handed.

    West Wing seemed to thrive on this theme. Some contentious issue would have the parties at their throats, the opposition would be invited to the White House but no compromise was in sight then the president would drop by, pontificate, declare his position moral and all would be solved in time for the closing credits.

    That isn’t how Washington works. What we’ve seen is Obama, being weak in the negotiations department, and thinking he can just pop in without preparation of the ground, come away empty-handed time and again. It’s happened with Congress both before and after the Republican takeover of the House, it has happened at international conferences, it has happened in one-on-one meetings with heads of state. The real problem is after 4 years, no one seems to have learned the lesson that the POTUS is just a guy in politics and if he can’t build compromise and coalitions then he is what is commonly known as a failure

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  18. MBunge says:

    @JKB: “if he can’t build compromise and coalitions then he is what is commonly known as a failure”

    Do you, like, live in a sensory deprivation tank? You can’t call someone a failure because he can’t build compromise and coalitions with people WHO REFUSE TO COMPROMISE OR BE PART OF A COALITION.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  19. JKB says:

    @MBunge: with people WHO REFUSE TO COMPROMISE OR BE PART OF A COALITION.

    And thus you have properly revealed the Palestinians. Yet Obama keeps pushing Israel to negotiate with people whose position is that Israel must be annihilated.

    Of course this doesn’t apply to the Republicans who are simply negotiating from a position of strength with a strong mandate from their constituents. So the impetus was on Obama to compromise until he achieved agreement or could go no further without losing his backers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Davebo says:

    Some of the finest screenplays ever written for television. That’s what made the West Wing great.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. An Interested Party says:

    …the media and the Obama acolytes, but I repeat myself…

    I see that the Conservative Victimization Tour continues…

    So the impetus was on Obama to compromise until he achieved agreement or could go no further without losing his backers.

    Who knew that compromise was another word for capitulation…how tragic that the President didn’t just roll over for those whose stated goal was to make him a one term president (yeah, there’s some real “compromise” in that position)…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Rob in CT says:

    Okay so some don’t like the Republican ideas

    You really are thick.

    THERE WERE NO REPUBLICAN IDEAS on healthcare reform, because the Democrats co-opted them. Obamacare is very similar to Romneycare, which is very similar to the alternatives pushed by the Right back when “Hillarycare” was on the table.

    There was a small push for Wyden-Bennett, but as soon as people started talking about it, GOP support vanished (in other words, it was never real support). There was no Conservative alternative. GOP strategy was to block Democratic healthcare reform so as to deny the Dems any electoral benefit that might come from solving (or at least improving upon) a long-standing problem. When that failed, it was demonize, demonize, demonize. Mostly by lying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Rob in CT says:

    I should also note that Obama’s take on Wyden-Bennet was basically “I like it, but it’s a more radical reform and we can’t get the votes for it.” It decoupled health insurance from employment, which I think is a good idea, but really *is* a more radical reform. So he wasn’t wrong about that part. Given that the GOP backers fled like rats off a sinking ship the moment W-B was brought up, I’d say O was right about not being able to get the votes too.

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