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In defense of "The West Wing"
It's a good show about American politics
On April 8, 2016, Bernard Sanders, independent senator from Vermont, appeared on “The View” and told the hosts that his favorite fictional portrayal of a president was Martin Sheen’s performance as Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing,” a show he described as “actually fairly reflective of what does go on in the White House.”
This opinion had not yet become cringe, so it was written up positively in Gawker as a nice story about Sanders, in which Kelly Stout said she’d “watched all seven seasons of the show on DVD, even after it got bad.” Unfortunately for Americans who have good taste in television shows, Bradley Whitford (who played Josh Lyman on the show) was around that same time vocally supporting Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign, and it rapidly became an article of faith in the Berniesphere that Sanders himself was wrong about this and the West Wing fandom in fact represented everything that was corrupt and bad about the Democratic Party.
Sanders, of course, lost the 2016 race. But he won important elements of the discourse, and ever since then, there has been nothing more embarrassing and uncool one could say about American politics than that one enjoys this television program.
But I would make the same case for the show that Bernie made on “The View.”
If you want to learn about American politics and public policy, you should not be watching a network television show. You should read some books or maybe listen to some podcasts in which authors of books explain what their books say. You should read the news regularly. You should subscribe to Slow Boring. Television dramas are not highly effective means of conveying information about complicated subjects. One watches television shows primarily to be entertained.
But that being said, by the standards of a fictional television show, “The West Wing” conveys some good and important ideas about American politics, and the version that people complain about is largely at odds with what is actually depicted on the show.1
There is a deep level of earnestness in D.C.
The West Wing’s earnestness is probably the most distinctive thing about the show and why it is liked by a lot of people who work in politics.
Most fictional depictions of D.C. life show it as a super cynical place full of power-hungry schemers who don’t care about anything. This is a convenient device for a certain kind of thriller, but it’s extremely fake. The smart and accurate thing to say is that real-world politics is more “Veep” than “House of Cards,” which is extremely true. But “Veep” is satire, exaggerating for effect and fundamentally also overstating the level of cynicism in Washington.2 One of the guys who consulted for “The West Wing” is Gene Sperling, who worked on the Dukakis campaign in 1988, was an economic advisor to Mario Cuomo, and served as Deputy Director and then Director of the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton. After being out of government for eight years, he came back as a counselor to Tim Geithner at the beginning of Obama’s presidency and then did another three-year stint as NEC director. Now he’s a senior advisor in the White House charged with American Rescue Plan implementation.
Whatever criticisms you may offer of the guy, Gene Sperling is clearly sincerely very committed to his ideas and to the idea that by serving at a high level in government he can nudge public policy in better directions.
And something “The West Wing” deeply gets about politics is that there are a lot of people like that kicking around. Are there kooks and grifters and opportunists and criminals and morons? Sure.
But you genuinely can’t understand key developments in American political history — good ones like the Affordable Care Act or bad ones like the Dobbs decision — without understanding the large and often critical role played by earnest people who sincerely believe in what they are doing. Even a lot of the really bad characters in politics — Paul Ryan, for example — are extremely sincere. And when you look at someone who is both bad and also non-sincere like Donald Trump, you can’t understand Trump’s successes without understanding the sincerity of many of his collaborators. For better or worse, helping Trump beat Clinton seemed like a good way to try to advance the causes of making abortion illegal and taking health insurance away from poor people, and unless you grasp the sincerity with which lots of Republicans believe in those causes, you won’t be able to make sense of how he related to the party’s professionals.
Americans like outsiders, not radicals
I find the way “The West Wing” came up in the 2016 primary interesting because one of the main themes of the show actually illustrates the way that entire dynamic ran off the rails. I think it’s easy to understand why Sanders liked a show about a cantankerous politician from northern New England who took on the Democratic Party establishment in an underdog primary campaign and captured the White House. But it’s also easy to see why Whitford felt that Sanders’ “political revolution” concept was entirely contrary to the ethic of the show.
And that’s because “The West Wing” correctly illustrates that traditionally, the voters have appreciated outsiders in presidential politics but not radicals. If you look at Bartlet and Matt Santos, they don’t have much in common biographically. But they are both alternatives to the establishment insiders (Hoynes and Russell) and both inspired idealistic people on their staff and in the electorate. They are fresh, interesting characters who promise a break from the grubbiness and opportunism that people see as endemic to the political system. But in terms of public policy, neither of them is anything particularly special. They are both pretty banal liberal incrementalists. In ideological terms, Bartlet breaks with his base a bit on free trade and Santos with the teachers unions on tenure. But their outsider-ness is meant to convey honesty, integrity, and realness, not policy radicalism.
This is a template that we’ve seen over and over again from John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and it’s exactly what makes the 2016 and 2020 races a little bit odd.
I, personally, enjoy both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden because I think the vocation of politics is underrated and that people are too cynical about it. But the fact of the matter is that people are cynical about politics. Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman are seasoned political operatives who understand how the game is played, and part of what they understand about how the game is played is that you’re supposed to identify talented politicians from outside the normal D.C. circuit and elevate them, telling the voters that The New Guy is going to fix the mess in Washington and reform the system. Did Bartlet reform the system? No, and Santos won’t either. But people want to believe in outsiders and reformers, even as they are also skittish about huge policy changes.
Presidents dominate vibes, Congress dominates policy
The genuinely weird thing about “The West Wing” is that Bartlet is in some sense the hero of the show, but as my then-colleague Ian Millhiser wrote 10 years ago, his actual achievements are incredibly modest.
But I think it’s important to note that this is something the show basically “gets right.” Republicans control Congress throughout Bartlet’s two terms in office. Given that reality, he just can’t accomplish very much. A conventional knock on the show is that it makes it seem as if substantive political battles can be won with nice speeches. I think Aaron Sorkin’s movie “The American President” really does that. But “The West Wing” doesn’t — Bartlet simply does not achieve many big changes to American public policy because giving nice speeches doesn’t win substantive political battles. To enact ambitious legislation you need congressional majorities — ideally large congressional majorities — and Bartlet doesn’t have them.
What he can do is give a lot of good speeches.
And the identity of the occupant of the White House and the speeches he gives have a big impact on the national mood. Look at how rapidly perceptions of the American economy evolved when Donald Trump became president.
On the merits, this is totally insane. The American economy’s recovery from the Great Recession was slower than it should have been but extremely steady. If you look at the macroeconomic indicators, you’d have no idea when the 2016 election took place, that it led to a change in partisan control, or that it was universally seen as a big deal by the people who lived through it.
And it’s the same in the fiction of “The West Wing.” During George W. Bush’s administration, the show was often (and rightly) described as a kind of liberal fantasy. And the fantasy was a Democratic Party president who would take the emblems of the American state and associate them with liberal ideas. In retrospect, Bartlet’s achievements compare very unfavorably with Barack Obama’s. But just as Donald Trump being in office meant a lot to conservative people even when he wasn’t accomplishing much legislatively, Bartlet’s position in the White House was important to the fictional residents of the show’s version of America.
America has a big order of succession problem
Beyond the big themes, the show also successfully highlighted some odd and neglected aspects of the American political system.
For example, if the president dies or is incapacitated, the vice president is supposed to step up. This constitutional provision has been the source of mischief at various times in American history, most notably when it led to the ascension of Andrew Johnson into the White House with a policy agenda that was very different from the course the Lincoln administration was pursuing. We also had similar, albeit smaller, changes in policy direction due to the untimely deaths of William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor.3 But a much bigger bug lurks in the fact that the next person in line is the Speaker of the House.
This poses a bunch of problems that “The West Wing” highlights in the arc where Glen Allen Walken becomes Acting President because Bartlet is incapacitated by his daughter’s kidnapping and the vice presidency is vacant due to Hoynes’ resignation in scandal.
The upshot of this is that as the country is in the midst of a huge crisis, a new set of crises are piled on by the fact that the Acting President has no confidence in the executive branch staff (and vice versa) and fundamentally disagrees with the policy course the country is on. It is 100 percent true that the show had to come up with a pretty far-fetched set of story choices in order to dramatize this. But in doing so they did a tremendous public service. This is a very real design flaw in the existing order of succession that does not advantage any party or faction and should be eliminated. It keeps not getting addressed because the situation is so unlikely to arise. But precisely because it could only arise in a really weird situation, it’s far too late to address when the problem actually arises. It would be smart for everyone to watch “The West Wing,” see that this is bad, and change the rules.
And this was not unique — “The West Wing” was way ahead of the curve in highlighting the possibility of debt ceiling mischief.
We shouldn’t have listened!
The portions are too small
Of course, nothing is perfect and I do think “The West Wing” has one very serious flaw as a depiction of American politics: the cast of characters is way too small.
It’s typical for a television show to focus heavily on a small cast of characters. The very best television shows like “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” tend to break free of this constraint and use the long runtime of television to tell sprawling narratives that wouldn’t fit in a movie. West Wing is much more conventional. The cast rotates a bit over the seasons as a few actors leave and new cast members are added, but the focus is consistently on a pretty narrow group of people. This sometimes just gets into weirdness, like speechwriter Sam Seaborn and communications director Toby Ziegler somehow running legislative strategy and being involved in the substance of every issue. But in terms of offering a misleading impression of politics, it just lands the show consistently underrating the actual complexity of the American federal government.
In the real world, if you’re thinking about, I dunno, a question related to tariffs, the Commerce Secretary is on paper as the relevant official. But the U.S. Trade Representative is probably going to want a piece of the action. And it’s also an economic policy issue that the Treasury Secretary and the Council of Economic Advisors may have opinions on. So there’s a National Economic Council that is supposed to do intergovernmental coordination on this kind of thing. But when something happens like last June when the Biden administration decided to waive tariffs on solar panels made in four countries, that’s the sort of thing that officials involved in climate policy would also take interest in, and maybe the State Department cares, too, because of the foreign policy angle.
For basic “we’re trying to construct a television show” reasons, the Bartlet Administration is really slimmed down relative to a real White House.
And this is where the show’s emphasis on speechifying does sort of mislead people, not because it’s naive about the hardball aspects of politics but because it cuts out all the management aspects of running the executive branch. As far as flaws go, I think it’s pretty forgivable — almost every show in television history has some form of this kind of extreme insularity relative to how people live their real lives. And especially if you compare “The West Wing” not to reality but to other fictional depictions of American politics, it’s really very good.
Here I would note a contrast with the 1995 movie “The American President,” which was also written by Aaron Sorkin and has some obvious similarities with “The West Wing.” It’s a pretty entertaining movie, but the depiction of American politics it features is pure sentimentality with essentially zero insight. “The West Wing” has plenty of sentimentalities, but it’s genuinely enhanced by a roster of consultants with practical experience in politics who help it deliver some real points.
“In The Loop” probably strikes the balance better, but I think not as many people have seen it.
It’s a somewhat unappreciated quirk of American history that all three of these presidential deaths shifted public policy in a pro-slavery direction. There is more contingency at work on this issue than most people realize.