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 $717 Billion Pentagon spending bill without one word of debate. 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.