Aspirational Television

West Wing And The Lost Political Dream
by Benjamin Neikrie

In the final moments of The West Wing, the First Lady turns to her husband, hours removed from the highest and most powerful position in the world. She asks what he is thinking about. President Bartlett replies, “tomorrow.” Some may see this line as cheesy, pompous, and needlessly grandiose, but to me, this is the kind of thoughtful and powerful moment that made West Wing special.

NBC’s political drama ran seven seasons from 1999-2006. As a 19-year-old, I missed West Wing in its prime, when it was a household staple that influenced public opinion. Instead, I watched the show concurrent with House of Cards, the absolute antithesis of all for which West Wing stood. In the older show’s final moment, all I could think about was the past; about how West Wing embodied a message and a spirit that is gone from public life, and is unlikely to return.

At its best, Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama managed to walk a fine line between the wide-eyed awe and gritty truth of American politics. While characters in the show repeatedly cast aside their personal lives for their jobs and their country, or abandoned a noble pursuit in the name of compromise, they never faltered in their faith in democracy, or the American political system.

West Wing was an ideologically left-leaning show. But characters in the Bartlett administration respected the intellect and noble pursuit of their opponents, knowing that the only thing that separated the two sides were different visions of a brighter future. Party allegiances and re-election, while key forces in show, were often put aside in the name of compromise and governance. Ideological or policy-driven criticism never became personal attacks. And above all, every character had the utmost respect for the American political system.

To some, these themes come across in the form of an intolerable sense of self-importance; a show about the elite deigning to perform the job they are destined to do, because they represent the best of us. These are fair criticisms, especially in the age of NSA spying, drone strikes, needless wars, and utter Washington gridlock.

But the fact that we slam Sorkin’s drama for offering a better version of American politics demonstrates to me the necessity of a show like West Wing, if only to offer a respite from ceaseless political negativity.

If West Wing was a fantasy, then House of Cards is a nightmare. Netflix’s Macbethian soap opera is a highlight reel of Washington’s worst, from backroom scheming to straight-up murder. The irony is that, for all its optimism, the characters of West Wing couldn’t accomplish in seven seasons what Frank Underwood achieves in three episodes. Underwood’s success only makes the message of House of Cards all the more grim; in Washington, only the corrupt thrive.

Recent polls have shown that nearly 64 percent of American parents don’t want their children to go into a field in politics. With the 113th Congress ranking as the least productive in history, with the lowest approval rating, Washington is seen as a place where you must sacrifice your morals and values to get elected to a job where you will get nothing done.

From a writing standpoint, every show should strive for its level of intelligence. Eventually I learned to watch each episode of West Wing with a laptop by my side so that I could understand what the impossibly smart characters were talking about. Soon, the show became a learning opportunity, one that teaches civic education far better than any U.S classroom.

But beyond knowing statistics and the names of government agencies, West Wing offered a far more valuable lesson for me, and for an entire generation. The show helped fortify my faith in government at a time when cynicism of American politics is at an all-time high. The actors and creators of show regularly report young people approaching them with the same message: “West Wing is the reason I decided to go into politics. It is the reason I believe I can make a difference.”

Politics reflects public opinion, and when the public see government as a crumbling institution occupied by corrupt politicians, that opinion is going to be reflected in the level of government. West Wing portrayed politics as a place of reason and compromise because the show’s creators, namely Sorkin, respected and admired the U.S system of government.

It has become a liberal idea to see government as a source of stability and progress, an institution that can affect positive change. Conservatives today see government as a bloated, stagnant institution that constantly oversteps its boundaries and screws up everything it touches.

Are we surprised then, when Republicans in Congress vote 50 times to repeal Obamacare, knowing full well that they are only contributing to the U.S government’s image as unproductive and divided? Or when the same party engineer a government shutdown which costs the country billions ? The Affordable Care Act passed both Houses of Congress and was ruled constitutional by a conservative-leaning Supreme Court. President Obama won a reelection that was largely seen as a referendum on Obamacare. By shutting down the government to attack Obamacare, the Republican Party demonstrated an utter disregard for the U.S legislative process. More, they dishonoured the American political system that Sorkin so highly revered.

West Wing would never be made today. No studio would touch its distinctly Democratic values, its incessant intellectual rhetoric, or its sweeping ideals. Which is why, when I saw the closing credits of the final episode, my first thought was not : “What am I going to watch now?” Instead it was, “What is going to restore my faith in government? In humanity?”

West Wing was aspirational, not a reenactment. Even in the late 90s – a time of economic growth and prosperity – Sorkin’s political atmosphere was a fiction. My wistfulness is not for some contrived golden age, but for the distance we have traveled away from that aspiration.