Pissing on the West Wing might seem like picking low-hanging fruit in 2018, now that political reality is an even more stark contrast to its Disney version of the Beltway than before. But I recently re-read this Luke Savage piece from last summer detailing the popularity of the show as a product of an era (the late 1990s and pre-9/11 00s) in which the politics of ideologically neutral centrism finally seemed within reach to the many people who are into this sort of thing.

Look, it's a TV show. I've grown out of trying to talk people out of liking TV shows. If you like it, you like it. In the Trump era, though, I'm starting to feel like some of the people still obsessed with the show – given when it aired, mostly the 50-and-over crowd right now – might be falling into a trap that conservatives have wallowed in for years now.

You know how the entirety of white conservatism is based on the shared idea of a "good old days," back before the fall? Of course the idealized America they're thinking of never really existed. It's a fantasy. It's fair to say that in the 1950s and 1960s ordinary working people were financially better off (thanks Unions!) but the monoculture, the institutionalized racism and sexism, the social stratification, it was all there. Nothing was perfect and wonderful, except for a select portion of white people.

I think some liberals, and a lot of people in the center, are starting to adopt a similar fantasy about the politics of the West Wing. If only we could rid ourselves of the slimy corruption of Trumpism and get back to a politics of integrity, honesty, and mutual respect! When there were Good Republicans, and Democrats were Pragmatic, and all policy discussions (and of course that was the majority of what governing was) ended with handshakes and some good, common sense status quo reinforcing centrism.

Look. I see the appeal of that. But that was a TV show; politics was never like that. The zeitgeist of the West Wing was the early Clinton years, but look at what happened during the actual Clinton years: a billion dollar campaign of lies to undermine universal health care, Democrats signing on to Reagan's agenda wholesale (welfare reform, sentencing reform, NAFTA, etc.), and Republicans spending six years trying to rip them to shreds anyway.

To the extent that consensus and Both Sides handshake politics ever existed it was on issues where a brutal elite consense pervaded (segregation, for example) and so no debate was necessary. It's like the old joke about how you can get a Catholic and a Protestant to stop bickering if you bring up Jews, because they can both agree on that point.

You see some ribbon threads of this today – Democrats and Republicans "coming together" to roll back Dodd-Frank and appease the financial industry. That's a terrible outcome. Just terrible. "Bipartisan" or "consensus" are not synonyms for "good" when it comes to public policy. It simply means that everyone agrees on an outcome (inevitably the status quo) and says nothing about the outcome itself. The Iraq War resolution was bipartisan. Agreeing to let Wall Street off the hook in the early Obama years was a bipartisan consensus. Spending a trillion dollars a year on the military is a bipartisan consensus. These are all idiotic and destructive ideas. If you applaud any of them simply on the basis of how good it makes you feel that no one really argued about anything and everyone shook hands and smiled and agreed, then I think you might not fully understand what politics is. This week, Congress passed a 7 Billion Pentagon spending bill without one word of debate.
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Everyone in Congress was no doubt very Civil about it, because they all want to roll around in the trough of money they just created. I would rather they caned each other over the head on the House floor and spent half as much on the military.

There's a reason the West Wing had to create a fictional world in which politics is good and wholesome and full of people of integrity. If you could follow actual politics and get any of that, there would have been no need to write the show.

19 thoughts on “WINGIN' IT”

  • A reflection of our conflict-adverse and compromise-loving culture that doesn't understand the difference between 'being friendly' and 'being friends,' or 'disagreeing' without 'being disagreeable.'

    I am sure these reasons are the same ones people identify for liking the movie, 'The American President.' The reality in that show was of course that no lobbyist would ever get hung up in DuPont Circle trying to get to the White House…

  • Isaac Segal says:

    Most TV shows are fantasies—Aaron Sorkin's more than most. Even if they are all about liberal wish fulfillment. BTW, to see how far today's "centrism" has careened to the Right, here's an excerpt from the 1956 Republican platform:

    "The Eisenhower Administration will continue to fight for dynamic and progressive programs which, among other things, will:Stimulate improved job safety of our workers, through assistance to the States, employees and employers;

    "Continue and further perfect its programs of assistance to the millions of workers with special employment problems, such as older workers, handicapped workers, members of minority groups, and migratory workers;

    "Strengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system;

    "Protect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans so that workers who are the beneficiaries can be assured of their rightful benefits;

    "Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of Sex;

    "Clarify and strengthen the eight-hour laws for the benefit of workers who are subject to federal wage standards on Federal and Federally-assisted construction, and maintain and continue the vigorous administration of the Federal prevailing minimum wage law for public supply contracts;

    "Extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable;

    "Continue to fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex;

    "Provide assistance to improve the economic conditions of areas faced with persistent and substantial unemployment.

    "We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs — expansion of social security — broadened coverage in unemployment insurance — improved housing — and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.We shall continue to seek extension and perfection of a sound social security system."

    There's a meme circulating that adds some verbiage that was not in the original, but the copy above has been fact-checked by Snopes.

  • darren madigan says:

    My wife and I love WEST WING and re watch various of its episodes often. But I will often go off into tirades of my own at much of the galaxy class stupidity in the show. One glimpse on screen of Ainsley Hayes or the Reverent Al Caldwell is enough to send me raving up and down the living room, screaming at the TV screen: "WHAT THE FUCK REAL PERSON CAN THIS CHARACTER POSSIBLY BE BASED ON? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT?" I can recognize the McCain and Ted Kennedy clones when they show up, I find it amusing that Bartlett was much too nice to be the Clinton surrogate he should have been so they had to make the Vice President into a sleazy, wheeling dealing, triangulating, fuck everything that holds still or moves slowly sonofabitch. But Ainsley Hayes? The Reverent Al Caldwell? Or any other positive, admirable conservative character on the show? No. They have no real life counterparts.

    Sorken's myopic shortsightedness regarding American exceptionalism always pisses me off, too. This comes through more stridently in THE NEWSROOM, but its there in WEST WING, too. But you've already noted what I often do myself — America's greatest accomplishments are toxic or worthless. Our highway system continues to destroy and deform the ecostructure of an entire continent, our public education system was designed to churn our poors into unimaginative conformist workers and consumers (and it failed!), we put men on the Moon because the Russians saw no point in such a foolish and dangerous publicity stunt, we won World War II! — when it became more profitable to kick Axis ass than sell munitions to the fuckers.

    And some of the shit Sam Seaborn says is just fucking nuts. When the crazy leftists want him to insert a line in a speech about the rich wanting tax cuts so they can have more yachts and swimming pools, Sam goes bananas, screaming that when he was in the private sector, he was rich, and he paid 47 times the normal tax rate, and fuck it, the water didn't come out of his taps 47 times harder, and the fire department didn't show up 47 times faster, and all that horseshit. He says this and every time I'm shrieking at the TV "You fuck, NOBODY PAYS 47 TIMES THE AVERAGE TAX RATE". And he's not, 47% was the highest tax rate we had when Reagan went on tax cutting jyhad, and paying 47% of your gross income is not the same goddam thing as paying forty seven times more taxes than 'normal'. That math is just retarded. Plus, if the water came out of your pipes forty seven times harder your house would explode, and if the fire department drove to your house forty seven times faster, they'd break the speed of sound, you numb twat.

    And when the Republican Congressman comes to Toby and offers him a vote on foreign spending that Bartlett desperately needs, in exchange for a scientific study run by an agnostic scientist on whether directed prayer can help sick people heal faster, Toby and Bartlett get all up on their high horses because oh no we can't scientifically investigate anything with a religious label, we're too good. And yet, when the snarling urban black kid asks Charlie if the Red Mass is a violation of the principle of keeping Church and State separate, Charlie asks Bartlett, and Bartlett shrugs and says "Yeah, but sometimes you say what the hell".

    Shit like this just makes me CRAZY.

    As you can see.

  • I do think that one positive aspect of our present hellscape is that some West Wing sympathetic liberals are finally realizing how dumb that whole worldview is. I definitely get less pushback when I argue that the structure of American governance or “moderate” Republicans are awful in liberal leaning forums than I used to.

    A silver lining for our radioactive gas cloud.

  • @Yegg & Darren Madigan:

    Yes. Not familiar with your nyms but you sound like you don't got some blinders on.

    I don't watch a lot of tv. I especially don't watch most anything being done in this period.

    Political comedy is one thing. We're living in a political farce at the moment and I hope that the producers pull the plug.


  • I can't say that I've ever watched the West Wing. But I remember a cartoon of a bunch of donkeys applauding in front of their tv because of something that was on that show while in the real world the elephants were screwing them.

    But I've seen a lot of 30s, 40s and 50s movies and I have to think that that's the past that these people remember. America was all white people. You might see a black person doing some manual labor in the background. When a black person was in closeup they made fun of them. They were slow and dim-witted. A white guy on the train asks the black porter to bring a bottle of whiskey to another passenger. "Don't drink any of this boy. It will turn you black." I saw that scene 50 years ago on tv and I still remember it.

    American movies have to have happy endings. Or the bad guy has to be caught and punished.

    There's an Argentinian movie that I love called "9 Queens". An intertwined story of a two conmen running a scam on a stamp collector with counterfeit stamps but also scamming each other. I don't want to give away any spoilers but the ending is great. When they remade the story as an American film "Criminal" there's a typical ending — the bad guy is arrested and cuffed.

    The old films had the white people in control and they basically made out all right because they were the good guys and truth, justice and the American way prevailed.

  • Nine Queens is one of the best films of the past 25 years, and sadly relevant again; originally a scathing commentary on what neoliberal fealty to the World Bank and IMF had done to Argentinian society. Now as indicative of what black hole stupidity and greed have done to ours, and by ours I mean all of the US and Western Europe.

  • I always called the West Wing "liberal porn".

    West Wing has Our Democratic Hero ordering various military attacks (lots), assassinating the leader of a sovereign nation, nominating one right-wing (!!!) and one "liberal" Supreme Court judge in a "compromise", and so on. They're very upset with the idea that the woman judge might have had an abortion decades ago. When a homeless veteran dies, Toby arranges for a funeral for him – but they do nothing else for homeless veterans. If crowdfunding had been a thing at the time, obviously they would have crowdfunded it. But the very idea of using the government to, say, find housing or do anything else for LIVING homeless veterans is rejected. There's a vote on a welfare bill that is passionately opposed by women's groups, but the administration heroically fights them off. This administration knows the real enemy: women. Josh lectures Amy about work and responsibility and how they can appeal to independent voters by slashing welfare, then gets her fired from her job. According to the script, Josh's welfare bill which he pushes through requires recipients to work 38 hours per week

    Probably a whole bunch more I've forgotten.

    That show is the pure essence of neoliberalism. It probably was formative, honestly, for a lot of the turd neoliberals we have today. Not just reflecting but actually creating their views. Blow up brown people, kick the poors, do most of what Republicans want, and consider yourself extremely noble for doing all this.

  • My parents grew up in the 1950's and neither one has ever expressed a fondness for that decade.

    My father, being dark complected and having and ethnic sounding last name was not considered to be fully "white" back then. Neither were Jews, Italians or any number of other groups.

  • My mother was a racist (like the rest of my family) although not deliberately. She voiced a negative opinion about some children singing Christmas carols one day. I looked at her and said, "Mom, they're not 'foreigners'. They are U.S. citizens of various ethnic mixes.". She was not deterred. I then said, "You do know that Cromwell (among others) used OUR people for target practice, back in the day?". End of discussion.

  • If you’ve never watched the show, you should at least look up the intro on Youtube. It had a signature trumpet sound from the theme music that they used a lot that I always thought of as “Ken Burns trumpet”. Very stirring, very “call to arms”, but also wistful and far away.

    I think a lot of folks who love the show secretly hear that music in their heads when they imagine a politics of polite debate and compromise. Noble men, making noble personal sacrifices in pursuit of noble goals: how inspiring! Like ancient Rome (which also wasn’t like that)!

    I think liberals everywhere heard that music when they thought of Obama, which is why far too few of us screamed in protest when he allowed the GOP to gut his original health care proposals.

  • "I think liberals everywhere heard that music when they thought of Obama, which is why far too few of us screamed in protest when he allowed the GOP to gut his original health care proposals."

    Blue dogs did that, not the repukes.

    Just like Clinton being blamed for Glass Steagall–he is blamed for not doing enough to stop a vote that went Senate 90–8 and by the House 362–57–no way to veto that piece of shit–again, thanks DINOmofoz!

  • I think the West Wing is useful for showing that norms used to EXIST. One day, we're going to have a hard time convincing people of that.

    Donna had to call voters in East Nowhere, New Hampshire. So she did it on her own phone, outside and across the street from the White House. The President having an undisclosed MS diagnosis was an enormous deal for everyone, even though MS doesn't actually make you crazy. CJ might have had a semi-antagonistic relationship some of the time with some of the press, but did not haul off and call them the enemy of the people.

    I haven't watched the show in years. I don't think I could stand to do it now.

  • I was never a regular watcher of the West Wing. I caught a few episodes, and even enjoyed a few, but speaking solely for myself, it seemed smug and preachy even in its time. I liked many of the actors on it including Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Bradley Witford, Rob Lowe, and Josh Molina. If not for them and their natural charisma and talent, the show would have been completely insufferable rather than just mildly insufferable.

  • @TakomaMark:

    I never could watch serialized fantasy once I got through the Lone Ranger phase.

    I think the only show I watch regularly is "Elementary"–I have a crush on Lucy Liu and Johnny Miller both. Her for her enigmatic beauty (I know, she's acting), Mr. Miller for his cultivated and curated uberintellectual snottiness (I don't know if he's acting or not!).

    Shows like West Wing with their "We take the High Road" always made me want to shout at the tv:

    "Call in some markers and have these odious fuckers rendited to Gitmo, STAT!".

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