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One of the things I look forward to with summer is some extra space to indulge in a little binge-watching on Netflix. I’m not much of a TV watcher, so even my binge habits are rather pathetic—it takes me a while to work through a season of any show. But that’s beside the point.
I thought my show this summer would be the highly anticipated third season of Stranger Things. But instead I got hooked on The West Wing. I know, know– you’re thinking, “Seriously? You’re just now watching The West Wing? Where have you been?”
When the show first aired on NBC in 1999 (and would go on to run for seven seasons), I just wasn’t all that interested (I was more of an X-Files guy). Years later, when I became more interested, I still resisted watching it because I was so tired of the real drama in Washington. When I had free time the last thing I wanted to do was watch some political show, even if it has been heralded as some of the best U.S. television ever produced.
But now I’m completely drawn in. Binge-watching for me is five or six episodes a week, so I’m only part way through Season Two.
For those of you who may also be hold-outs and haven’t seen it, The West Wing follows the story of charismatic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) and his highly talented and hard-working senior staff. You get an inside look at the operations of the White House, watching a president and his team tackle all sorts of crises both domestic and international, all the while not taking themselves too seriously.
While The West Wing has been celebrated for its excellent script writing and its ability to address difficult issues with wit and charm, it has also been criticized for not being a very accurate portrayal of the actual workings of American politics. According to some, it’s too personality driven, romanticized, and fails to give a picture of the slow, complex, and highly bureaucratic way that government works. In an Atlantic Monthly article titled “Why ‘The West Wing’ Is a Terrible Guide to American Democracy,” Yair Rosenberg writes,
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.
Watching The West Wing to learn how democracy works, Rosenberg goes on to say, is like watching episodes of ER to learn how the hospital emergency room works or Law & Order to study up on how to be a lawyer.
Fair enough. The West Wing is a television show, concerned with the elements of good storytelling and character development. Of course it’s going to come up short on fully representing the bureaucracy of American politics. And who really wants to watch seven seasons of that? But I want to push back on Rosenberg’s assertion that The West Wing “leads viewers to expect more from their elected officials and government than either can reasonably deliver.”
In my opinion, this is so much of the problem with the current state of American politics: the bar has been set so low with the Trump Administration and the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, that we’ve simply become resigned to expect so little. To expect so little not just in terms of policy and decision-making but also in terms of rhetoric, moral leadership, and plain decency in how we treat each other. Rosenberg may be right that the personality and rhetoric of our leaders, particularly the president, is limited in terms of effecting large-scale policy change. But as John Meacham has argued in his outstanding book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, the president does have enormous moral and cultural power in shaping the soul of a nation. “A president sets the tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and mind.”
And this is one of the reasons I’m so taken with The West Wing. Yes, it may be quixotic in its portrayal of how decisions get made and the power of charismatic personalities to bring change. But I watch the way the characters interact with each other, and with others who disagree with them, and there have been multiple times I’ve been deeply moved. Josiah Bartlet has his own demons, yet here is a man who has his convictions and leads out of those convictions with compassion. The loyalty among Bartlet’s administration is not self-serving and transactional, driven by survival of the fittest; rather it is fueled by belief in one another, and a genuine concern for each other and a commitment to the greater good. The press is not regarded as “the enemy of the people” but a band of journalists striving to do their job, asking hard questions, and a press secretary (C.J. Cregg) who stands in there, at times jabbing back, but in way that refuses to demonize and draw enemy lines. I’m no political scientist, but I think this is how democracy is supposed to work, actually.
The West Wing may be fiction, but to watch politicians act like adults (albeit imperfect) is a breath of fresh air. And it gives me a tiny boost of hope in terms of what we can and should expect of our political leaders, most of all our president. I think this kind of maturity and moral leadership is something that is reasonable to expect of our government and elected officials. Let me say it more strongly: this is what we must expect.
It’s time to raise the bar.