"Far from the Kafkaesque banality which so often characterizes the real life equivalent, the mundane business of technocratic governance is made to look exciting, intellectually stimulating, and, above all, honorable. The bureaucratic drudgery of both White House management and governance, from speechwriting, to press conference logistics, to policy creation, are front and center across all seven seasons. A typical episode script is chock full of dweebish phraseology — “farm subsidies”, “recess appointments”, “census bureau”, “congressional consultation” — usually uttered by swift-tongued, Ivy League-educated staffers darting purposefully through labyrinthine corridors during the infamous “walk-and-talk” sequences. By recreating the look and feel of political processes to the tee, while garnishing them with a romantic veneer, the show gifts the Beltway’s most spiritually-devoted adherents with a vision of how many would probably like to see themselves...
Debuting during the twilight of the Clinton presidency and spanning much of Bush II’s, it predictably vacillated somewhat in response to events while remaining grounded in a general liberal ethos. Having writing credits for all but one episode in The West Wing’s first four seasons, Sorkin left in 2003, with Executive Producer John Wells characterizing the subsequent direction as more balanced and bipartisan. The Bartlet administration’s actual politics—just like those of the real Democratic Party and its base—therefore run the gamut from the stuff of Elizabeth Warren-esque populism to the neoliberal bilge you might expect to come from a Beltway think tank having its white papers greased by dollars from Goldman Sachs.
But promoting or endorsing any specific policy orientation is not the show’s true raison d’être. At the conclusion of its seven seasons it remains unclear if the Bartlet administration has succeeded at all in fundamentally altering the contours of American life. In fact, after two terms in the White House, Bartlet’s gang of hyper-educated, hyper-competent politicos do not seem to have any transformational policy achievements whatsoever. Even in their most unconstrained and idealized political fantasies, liberals manage to accomplish nothing."
- Luke Savage, marvellously on the legacy of the West Wing in Current Affairs
Anecdotally, in my Senior year of high school, I attended the Columbia Journalism conference, as I had done my Junior Year. This year, though, there was a special session being held where an episode of the West Wing would be screened and there would be a Q&A with the stars of the show. The show had only been on a season or two at this point, but its influence and impact were already well-established.
The entire trip took place during school hours, which allotted travel time to NYC and back to Poughkeepsie, NY. In addition, because of the high demand for the session, there was a long line to get in to the West Wing session. This meant that we had a choice between actually attending the conference- choosing three or four educational sections to help us hone our skills, or going to see the cast of a popular TV show about politics and nothing else. In hindsight, studying journalism over the West Wing may have been more appropriate for defending ourselves in the coming years, but maybe a more critical lens on things like The West Wing would have also been appropriate.
A question came up during the Q&A about how the show's star, Martin Sheen, was able to reconcile the show's incrementalist and respectability politics with his own. Sheen had been involved in direct street action and civil disobedience since the 60s. What wasn't clear was that at the time, Sheen and his show were being used to drive that exact divide, as neoliberals in the democratic party shoehorned the left into an inexorable trap, disengaged of enough energy to survive on its own and without the spine or willpower of actual representation within Congress outside of a small, marginalized group of progressives to make an impact on the popular imagination. Within a few years, Sheen would sign a petition opposing the invasion of Iraq, but those making tough decisions in the Jed Bartlett mold largely supported it and became actively complicit in what may be the biggest war crime of the 21st century. The left fought for attention by holding massive demonstrations and actives, but found itself accepting whatever allies it could muster after being completely deprived of political capital in Washington.
Savage hits the nail on the head when he defines the West Wing strategy used to shut down leftists like Sheen; by appealing to their levelheaded refinery rather than their passions. Everything was debate club, and if you sounded like the most educated compromiser, it didn't matter if what was being compromised was Iraqi children's' lives or government-backed subprime mortgages. The left could be seen as agitators, and no different than the hard right neocons, if one would only accept that the only legitimate option was a fetishized high road of elite maneuvering and deep listening to the concerns of their opposition (who themselves realized that these geeks would do whatever they wanted if they just pushed them in the locker enough).
"It’s a smugness born of the view that politics is less a terrain of clashing values and interests than a perpetual pitting of the clever against the ignorant and obtuse. The clever wield facts and reason, while the foolish cling to effortlessly-exposed fictions and the braying prejudices of provincial rubes. In emphasizing intelligence over ideology, what follows is a fetishization of “elevated discourse” regardless of its actual outcomes or conclusions. The greatest political victories involve semantically dismantling an opponent’s argument or exposing its hypocrisy, usually by way of some grand rhetorical gesture. Categories like left and right become less significant, provided that the competing interlocutors are deemed respectably smart and practice the designated etiquette. The Discourse becomes a category of its own, to be protected and nourished by Serious People conversing respectfully while shutting down the stupid with heavy-handed moral sanctimony." Savage goes on to say
Since DNC Clintonism stood for nothing other than "seriousness", it was easy to call the left, who actually stood for specific policies and ideologies, out on hypocrisy when it inevitably caved on one or two things (see the most recent fervor over Bernie Sanders supporting a democratic candidate who is only slightly more pro-life than Tim Kaine). For the reasonabilist, hypocrisy is the worst sin because it makes your arguments vulnerable to being OBLITERATED or DECIMATED by late night hosts, or worse, people like Trump. Trump found a huge loophole during his campaign that showed that what people most despised was not hypocrisy itself, but hypocrisy directed an other. It didn't matter that Trump was a hypocrite himself or that through most of his life he agreed with many of the same tenets as Clinton, he was able to lob arguments from the left at Clinton and have them stick because he was playing a game about power while the other side was playing politics, clearing the way for Clinton to resign with dignity while Trump could launch an ignoble reign.
If the left is vulnerable to hypocrisy by standing for something in the first place, pragmatism the most logical course, since pragmatism is by definition compromise. But if the pragmatists think idealism is just fantasy, for the weak and unserious, they're painfully unaware that for the people who need idealism to survive, West Wing-ism means next to nothing when it produces nothing of value to their own lives.