Current Affairs

What Happens in the West Wing

The show is a documentary about how and why centrist politics fails, and the inner logic used to conceal that failure.

The cast of the West Wing recently reunited after 14 years for a one-off special called, rather awkwardly, A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. (“When We All Vote” is an organization.) The special, filmed at the historic Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, combines a reenactment of the Season 3 episode “Hartsfield’s Landing” with a series of PSAs from cast members and celebrity guests (Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samuel L. Jackson) on the importance of voting and the means by which one can register.

    The West Wing is one of the most highly acclaimed television series of all time. Set in a fictitious presidential administration, it influenced a generation of Democratic politicos. Over seven seasons, the series provided a kind of liberal “alternate universe” presidency during the Bush years. It’s sometimes called a “fantasy” about an “idealized” Washington, because its White House is populated by educated, witty, well-intentioned technocrats who are both progressive and patriotic. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet is a Nobel Prize-winning economist with an uncommonly good memory, a firm grasp of policy, and a noble soul. He is patriotic and religious while firmly loyal to the Democratic Party. He is also a good dad. 

    Left critics of the show have noted the shortcomings of the show’s political ideal, which celebrates “governance by the good and intelligent.” Sorkin himself called the show “a Valentine to public service and to American institutions” about people who “all seemed to wake up in the morning and come to work wanting to do good.” Luke Savage, in an excellent analysis of the show printed in this magazine several years ago, said that in the West Wing, “the mundane business of technocratic governance is made to look exciting, intellectually stimulating, and, above all, honorable,” and that 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.” 

    This is certainly on display in the episode picked for the new reenactment. It’s actually one that Savage quoted, due to a scene in which the White House communications director tells President Bartlet that he should stop pretending to be “folks,” and should wear his intelligence on his sleeve. “Make this election about smart and not, qualified and not,” the communications director tells the president. As he says this, Bartlet is in the middle of winning chess matches against multiple White House staffers at once, and resolving a seemingly impossible military stand-off with China, because he is a genius who can “see the whole board” while others cannot.

    The other major storyline in “Hartsfield’s Landing” concerns the fictitious New Hampshire hamlet that gives the episode its title. Based on the real life Hart’s Location, it is a town of just over 40 registered voters that has outsized significance because it reports presidential primary results before anywhere else. The president’s deputy chief of staff is determined that he wants the president to win Hartsfield’s Landing, mainly for symbolic reasons, and dispatches his assistant to try to persuade a pair of voters who do not care for the president. The assistant reports back that the couple are dissatisfied that the president’s free trade policies have hurt manufacturing in New Hampshire, and they do not trust him because he has refused to take privatizing Social Security off the table. The deputy communications director is exasperated that the couple do not understand why the president is good, but eventually reasons that democracy is about choice and instructs his assistant to give up on trying to persuade the couple. (“The people” are often presented as a crankish annoyance in the show.)

(There is a third storyline about the press secretary having a feud with the president’s aide over who has paper copies of the president’s daily schedule, but it has fewer ideological implications and will thus be left undiscussed.)

“Hartsfield’s Landing” displays all of the tendencies that inspired a loyal viewership and made socialists grind their teeth in despair. In the president’s plotline, we see how a person of intellectual depth can outwit his lessers, and are granted a vision of what a “competent” presidency might look like. The New Hampshire couple clearly have legitimate grievances, but they do not appear on screen and there is no sense that the deputy communications director has any instinct except to explain why they are wrong. The New Hampshire plotline is presented as a tribute to the democratic process, with the lesson learned being that this process should be allowed to take its course (the president wins the village primary). I, of course, could not stop wondering why it was so unreasonable to want the president to pledge to protect Social Security, but this was touched on only briefly. 

I went back through some of the West Wing recently because, like Savage, I see it as a very useful guide for understanding the aspirations and ideology of a certain kind of “technocratic liberalism.” Two conclusions stuck out: first, it is a very good show in lots of technical aspects, and this is important for understanding how horrible values can come to seem compelling and why talent and virtue are not synonymous. Second, it is not a depiction of an “unrealizable fantasy,” but an extremely realistic depiction of liberal governance that just needs to be interpreted correctly rather than in accordance with the intentions of its creators and the self-perceptions of its characters.

There is a tendency to believe that art with bad values is bad art, or that the people who produce it are stupid. I see this in some of the criticism of J.K. Rowling: people assume that because she is transphobic and has bad politics, the Harry Potter books are bad and trite and stupid. That may be true (I think the books are very good, as pieces of children’s literature) but people with horrible values can also be extremely talented and even “smart.” The West Wing is a compelling piece of television. The characters are memorable and seem like real people. (Pious know-it-alls like Bartlet are not rare, but quite common.) The dialogue is snappy, the political issues are well-researched, the jokes can be good, the plots are tight but intricate. I do not think the problem with Aaron Sorkin is that he is a bad writer. In fact, I think the problem with him is that he is a good writer who has appalling and ignorant values.

The West Wing, far from being unrealistic, was prophetic. It did not depict an administration that “could not exist.” In fact, the very thing it aspired to came about shortly after. Two years after the West Wing went off the air, the country elected Barack Obama, the brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning academic liberal president, who made “hard choices” and surrounded himself with the best and brightest. (He was also a good dad.) And what we found out is that just stuffing the West Wing with the “wisest,” most “pragmatic,” most “well-intentioned” people does not produce needed political change. Being a natural compromiser is not actually “pragmatic”—it just helps the other side win. It sells out our core moral values and gets nothing in return. It is neither good nor effective. 

What’s interesting is that all of this was depicted in the West Wing, but the people making and watching the West Wing did not appear to notice. Because Aaron Sorkin is a good writer and artist who observes how people talk and act and does his research, he presented a fairly accurate picture of how a certain type of high-minded technocrat really behaves. I am reminded here of The Toast’s feature “Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History.” Male artists throughout the ages depicted the facial expressions of women with scrupulous accuracy. They just didn’t necessarily realize that the women they were painting were bored out of their minds, because they didn’t know how to interpret what they were representing. Sometimes it is true that Sorkin simply writes female characters badly, but other times he writes true-to-life characters and simply does not seem to grasp or care what is really going on between them. 

President Bartlet is actually a dreadful president, and the show portrays this. As Savage points out, “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.” Bartlet’s speechwriting team, like Obama’s, is stuffed with Ivy League white guys who are great at talking and bad at listening. These men are sexist and smug. They rationalize bureaucratic inertia as pragmatism. They think reeling off statistics about agricultural subsidies is “doing politics.” They strut down hallways looking purposeful, without having any idea of where they’re going. 

The West Wing, then, can be understood as a rather brilliant show that does offer a crucial political science lesson. It goes through issue after issue and shows how liberals fail on each. To see the reality, all we have to do is watch the show with a critical eye. When we do that, we gain a profound insight into why Sorkin’s (and Obama’s) politics are compelling to people, because we see what they appear like from the inside looking out. We see how important issues come to seem secondary, how defeats can be spun as victories, how government officials can be distracted by the trivial and neglect what actually matters. Sometimes the West Wing is contrasted with Veep, because the former supposedly portrays competent and moral government officials while the latter presents bumbling and venal ones. But this is false. Both shows depict bumbling and venal government officials, and do it beautifully, but the West Wing offers a more profound (if accidental) study of why people who do horrible things don’t notice that those things are horrible.

Let me show you what I mean. I went back through Season 1 of the West Wing and wrote down everything major that actually happens on the show. (Apparently after Sorkin left in the 4th year, the show became more bipartisan and less idealistic, so bear in mind that this is the West Wing’s idealists at their most idealistic.) In bold, I have noted the places where “actual politics” enters the show, by which I mean things that occur in the White House that have the potential to affect the lives of ordinary people. Much of the West Wing is personal drama, which is fine, because it’s a TV drama, but this means that we need to comb through and pick out the political bits in order to form a picture of what is really going on in the Bartlet White House. 

  1. The president injures himself in a bicycle accident. The deputy chief of staff makes an offensive comment about Christians, causing a public relations incident. A group of religious extremists have menaced the president’s daughter. The administration debates whether to rescue 1200 Cuban refugees approaching Florida in tiny boats. While they debate, the Cubans are caught in a storm and 350 of them die. A small percentage are rescued by the Coast Guard and seek asylum in the United States. The president’s deputy communications director sleeps with a woman he does not know is a sex worker, and ineptly conducts a White House tour for elementary school students. 
  2. Relations continue between the deputy communications director and the sex worker. The Vice President annoys the president’s staff by publicly stating that “the president needs our full support,” which they take as insufficient enthusiasm for the president’s policies. Staff fret about the fact that the Ryder Cup golf team has declined an invitation to come to the White House due to a golf joke made by the president. A senator decides to keep an unspecified bill in committee, irritating the PR agent who represents him. The president gets a new physician. 
  3. After an American plane is shot down in the Middle East, the president furiously demands a severe retaliatory strike that would kill thousands of civilians, and his advisers must frantically talk him out of it. (“Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response, we come back [bangs fist on table] with total disaster!” — Bartlet.) The press secretary and deputy communications director argue over the latter’s patronizing attitude toward the sex worker. A Black teenager is interviewed for a job as the president’s aide. 
  4. The president needs support for his gun control bill, but cannot get the votes in part because progressive legislators view the bill as toothless and symbolic. Eventually the Vice President helps the president find the votes. The chief of staff’s marriage is crumbling. The communications director must explain an aberration on his financial disclosure forms. The president mixes up his medication. 
  5. The staff are disgruntled because they are being forced to meet with members of the public who have come to raise concerns with the White House. It is dismissed as “Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About” day, and includes environmentalists encouraging the White House to protect wolves from ranchers and a representative of the United States Space Command saying that UFOs need to be taken more seriously. These petitioners are treated with derision. The president wants his staff to sample his prized chili, which he has made to celebrate his daughter attending Georgetown. The communications director worries that he was not the president’s first choice for the job. The deputy chief of staff is anxious after being informed he will be singled out for rescue in a nuclear attack. The press secretary encourages the deputy chief of staff to read a New Yorker article about smallpox. 
  6. Staff persuade a congressman to drop support for an amendment to a commerce bill concerning the methods of conducting the U.S. census. The deputy chief of staff and his assistant have a conversation about the nature and purpose of budget surpluses. The president’s daughter is involved in an altercation at a bar. The chief of staff’s wife leaves him. 
  7. The staff prepare for an elaborate state dinner. The press wishes to know what the First Lady will be wearing. The president orders labor and trucking industry representatives to reach a settlement to avert a nationwide strike, which has been called because certain employees are being denied benefits. The president takes no position on the issue and staff are divided on it. A hurricane is heading toward Georgia and may cause damage to a naval fleet. The FBI launches a raid on a house containing survivalists, for unclear reasons, though a staffer’s comments suggest the warrant to raid the home may have been obtained unethically. The president of Indonesia is asked for a favor. 
  8. The chief of staff frets because his daughter is dating the deputy communications director. The press secretary tries to avoid becoming romantically entangled with a reporter who is making advances. There is tension over the disparaging tone the president showed toward the Vice President in a Cabinet meeting. The staff debate whether to care that a measure endorsing strip-mining on federal land has been inserted into an important banking bill that includes certain consumer protections and will prevent “total” deregulation, though the president ultimately uses a clever legal maneuver to protect the land. 
  9. A retiring Supreme Court justice is annoyed that instead of nominating a working-class progressive judge of color named Mendoza, the President has decided to choose Peyton Cabot Harrison III, a Rhodes scholar and former dean of Harvard Law School whose father was Eisenhower’s attorney general. “I wanted to retire five years ago,” says the justice. “But I waited for a Democrat… and instead I got you… you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath.” Ultimately, however, when Harrison is revealed to have written that there is no Constitutional right to privacy, the President must choose Mendoza instead. A Congressman insists that there are substance abusers on the White House staff and the chief of staff is worried that his struggle with addiction will be revealed.
  10. The press secretary continues to be hounded by the reporter who is aggressively making romantic advances on her, and her resolve begins to weaken. The president goes Christmas shopping. The staff look for dirt on political rivals to protect the chief of staff from having his substance abuse problem disclosed. The communications director learns about the life history of a homeless Korean War veteran. The press secretary discovers that her secret service code name is amusing. The press secretary is warned not to promise the administration will do anything after a horrible hate crime is committed because the White House is “not sure where they stand” on hate crimes legislation.
  11. The deputy chief of staff is subpoenaed to testify about substance abuse on the White House staff. The White House media consultant decides to work for a Republican. An eccentric British diplomat is called in to help reduce nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan. The president’s daughter and personal aide begin dating one another. 
  12. The president threatens India over its military activity. The president has been concealing that he has multiple sclerosis, and his condition causes him difficulty during the preparations for the State of the Union. The communications director boldly decides to change a line in the speech from “the era of big government is over” to instead reflect the idea that “government, no matter what its failures are in the past, and in times to come… can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind.” 
  13. The staff is worried that a report they have commissioned on sex education is “not good” for them because it suggests abstinence-only education is not helpful. The president recommends burying the report for a year. The Georgetown student newspaper reports that the president’s daughter is taking a class with a right-wing sociology professor. The communications director persuades several members of Congress to let the president’s nominees for posts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting proceed. A congressional subcommittee begins investigating the deputy chief of staff for lack of cooperation with the substance abuse probe. The president is about to sign hate crimes legislation passed after the horrific killing of a gay man. Because the victim’s parents are rumored to oppose the president, the administration is worried that the victim’s father is secretly conservative and was embarrassed by his son and therefore presents a public relations liability. As it turns out, the opposite is the case: the man is proud of his son and furious with the administration for taking no action on gay rights. To the press secretary he says: “Gays in the military, same-sex marriage, gay adoption, boards of education—where the hell is he? I want to know what qualities necessary to being a parent this President feels my son lacked? I want to know from this President, who has served not one day in Vietnam—I had two tours in Vietnam. I want to know what qualities necessary to being a soldier this President feels my son lacked? Lady, I’m not embarrassed my son was gay. My government is.” It is decided that this still makes the parents a public relations liability, so they are sent home and not allowed to attend the signing ceremony. An administration official has misused a government helicopter, causing a to-do. 
  14. The manager of a California congressional campaign is furious with the White House for cutting off funding to their campaign when the polls are tight. The deputy chief of staff explains that funding has been cut to prevent the campaign from succeeding, because the Republican incumbent is preposterously right-wing and his racist statements help the DNC with fundraising. The president elaborates that “I like the devil I got” and that he thinks the Democratic candidate is an “empty shirt.” The deputy communications director asks the deputy chief of staff to handle a weekend meeting so that the deputy communications director can go sailing. The president has 48 hours to decide whether to stay the pending execution of a Hispanic man who killed two drug kingpins. He agonizes over the decision because he is personally opposed to the death penalty but believes it would be controversial and politically awkward to intercede and is, in the words of his deputy communications director, “very serious about the separation of powers.” Eventually the president does nothing and the man is executed.
  15. The president’s Supreme Court nominee, Roberto Mendoza, has been arrested by racist police officers, creating a situation. Mendoza wants to publicly expose what happened to him but is talked out of it by the administration, who wish to hush it up so the nomination can proceed. The deputy chief of staff conducts a disastrous press briefing and makes a gaffe. The Housing and Urban Development secretary, a Black woman, is instructed that she must either resign or apologize after she publicly calls a racist Republican congressman a racist for “scoring political points on the backs of poor people and minorities.” When the HUD secretary tries to explain that she believes it is incumbent on her as a Black woman to call out racism, the chief of staff says that her “role is first and foremost to serve the president,” which she has “failed spectacularly” at, and tells her the president will “fire her ass” in a heartbeat if she doesn’t comply. Mendoza condemns the president for making the HUD secretary apologize, infuriating the staff. 
  16. Staff discuss whether it would be politically advantageous for the president to come out against flag-burning. The president arranges improvements in Secret Service protection for his daughter. The administration asks for the Vice President’s help to pressure Congress to renew an ethanol tax credit that “has accomplished exactly none of its goals,” but the Vice President is reluctant, so they give up. A Hollywood producer offers the press secretary a job at a major studio. A major donor threatens to cancel a fundraiser if the president refuses to condemn a new bill that bans LGBT people from military service. The president offers the donor a private meeting to appease him, and stays silent on the issue, accusing the donor of throwing an “adolescent tantrum.” Jay Leno and David Hasselhoff guest star as fundraiser attendees.
  17. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve has a fatal heart attack, causing a dip in the stock market. The First Lady’s vocal opposition to child labor causes a Congressperson to attach a provision restricting child labor to a trade agreement, angering the staff, who believe restrictions on child labor are politically inconvenient. The First Lady is upbraided by the president’s deputy communications director for her lack of message discipline. The First Lady intervenes to get the child labor restriction amendment removed from the trade bill. The president’s daughter’s interracial relationship is met with threats from white supremacists. The communications director tells a congressman concerned about the effect of free trade on domestic manufacturing to “shut up” because the congressman drives a foreign-made car. The president is upset that the First Lady has publicly disclosed her personal preference for who should be the new Federal Reserve Chair, because if he nominates that person it “makes me look like I’m taking instructions from my wife.” 
  18. The president’s daughter attends a party at which drugs are taken, creating a possible embarrassment for the administration. A Black nominee to be the attorney general for civil rights has created an awkward situation for the administration by blurbing a book on reparations, saying it should “be read by everyone and burned into the minds of white America.” The deputy chief of staff argues with the nominee about reparations but is eventually forced to concede he has a point. The deputy communications director makes a vigorous argument for school vouchers to a public school teacher in whom he is romantically interested, before ultimately admitting he does not believe the argument and actually supports public schools. The administration tries to get China to give the United States a new panda for the National Zoo. 
  19. The president’s secretary tells him he is not getting enough roughage in his diet. The president’s staff warn him that it is a bad idea politically to try to put campaign finance reformers on the Federal Elections Commission. The president gives a speech to an organization of sport fishermen. The press secretary tries to track down and suppress an embarrassing memo outlining the president’s weaknesses. The president’s deputy communications director is tasked with fending off opposition to a measure expanding LGBT rights in the military, but realizes the president is not serious about pushing the measure. The president’s poll numbers dip. The president and his chief of staff clash, with each accusing the other of being the reason the administration has a timid approach to politics. The president says he is constantly being told he can’t do things, and the chief of staff says the president sets the tone: “You’ve never been out there on guns. You’ve never been out there on teachers. You dangle your feet… It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far…Sam can’t get real on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because you’re not gonna be there… Everyone’s waiting for you. I don’t know how much longer.” The president, realizing this is true, resolves not to back down on nominating reformers to the Federal Elections Commission. There is a problem with the White House email system. 
  20. The press secretary admits to the press that the nomination of reformers to the Federal Elections Commission is symbolic and is expected to do nothing to reform elections. The press secretary boasts that the president voluntarily chose a Republican as one of the nominees, although it turns out this was mandatory. The deputy chief of staff attempts to flirt with a new colleague. The president is warned that coming out for marijuana legalization would be politically unpopular. The administration debates whether coming out for increasing drug treatment will lead them to be painted as “soft on crime.” A member of Congress pressures the administration to do something about mandatory minimum sentences. 
  21. The staff fret over the president’s approval rating. The president frets that he is being accused of wanting to legalize drugs. The deputy chief of staff frets that Republicans will bring up a bill trying to make English the official language of the United States. The deputy communications director’s relationship with the sex worker is exposed by the press. An ambassador is fired over a liaison. The president’s strategy to alter the composition of the Federal Elections Commission appears to bear fruit. 
  22. A space shuttle containing the communications director’s brother is in distress. The president prepares for a town hall event. An American pilot has been shot down over Iraq (why the United States had a military presence in Iraqi airspace is undiscussed). The press secretary frets over having to lie to the press. The deputy chief of staff convinces the Vice President that there is too much money in politics and that it has a corrupting influence. Racists open fire on the president, his daughter, and his staff, and it is clear people are injured, leading to a cliffhanger ending. 

    One of the most important truths about politics, which everyone needs to fully understand, is that bad things usually look like good things to the people who do them. The West Wing invites us to see Bartlet’s staff as they see themselves, and we can get wrapped up in their stories and come to like their characters (often people who do bad things are interpersonally likable). But when we step back and ask ourselves “But what is really going on here? What am I not seeing? Whose perspectives are being excluded?” we can realize that everything we’re taking in looks totally different from another angle. I think it’s important to note that you could set a drama in the upper ranks of the Pinochet dictatorship or the North Korean government, and so long as it never depicted what was actually going on “on the ground,” and polite euphemisms were used in the description of atrocities, the protagonists could be depicted as humane and likable. This is because evil is more often banal than “hateful,” and intelligent, sensitive people who love their families can be responsible for utterly heinous and murderous acts toward people who are not within their circle of valued human beings. To evaluate carefully, it can help to “defamiliarize” ourself with what we see, to try to look from the perspective of an outsider rather than an insider—not how “Josh” looks to “C.J.” but how the president’s chief of staff looks to the guy about to be executed; not how George looks to Dick, but how the Bush administration looks to an Iraqi. 

Surely a few incidents in particular stuck out to you in those episode summaries. First, Bartlet’s chief of staff threatened to fire a Black woman for correctly calling a racist a racist, and shut her down when she tried to give her perspective. (This has a real life parallel: Bill Clinton fired Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders after she publicly suggested that masturbation was healthy and normal.) Second, Bartlet shows an unhinged desire for righteous patriotic vengeance against a Middle Eastern country, displaying exactly the sort of attitude that led to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Third, Bartlet declines to use his power to stop a man from being killed, even though he knows that the killing is wrong. Fourth, the administration suppresses the fact that a Supreme Court justice was racially profiled because it wants to avoid turning racial profiling into a national conversation. Fifth, and most indefensibly, the president’s staff refuse to allow the parents of a murdered gay man to be present at the signing of a hate crimes bill because they are worried the parents will criticize the president over his inaction on gay rights.

    Each of these actions is wrong. But the West Wing is written in such a way that it’s easy not to notice how wrong they are, just as the people doing them don’t notice. This can help us understand why Barack Obama’s staff might have been so defensive of their own actions. As the West Wing’s West Wing looks to Bartlet staffers, so the Obama administration looked to itself.  (Who were often directly inspired by the show!) 

We can see how a president can come to think that “political circumstance” is simply “restraining” them from exercising their power, when actually they are declining to use their agency due to a combination of ideology and timidity. In Episode 19, Bartlet and his chief of staff get into an amusing argument, in which each thinks the other has been the reason the administration isn’t taking bold action. Bartlet thinks he’s being told he can’t do the things he wants to do, while the chief of staff thinks the president has given him a mandate to be “pragmatic” and keep the president from behaving rashly.  

Of course, looking carefully at the storylines, we can see the points at which the president had clear agency and did not use it. See, for example, Bartlet’s original decision to nominate an Ivy League blueblood to the Supreme Court rather than a progressive. (Compare to Obama’s nomination of the inoffensive moderate Merrick Garland rather than a more principled federal judge like, say Jane Kelly, Goodwin Liu, or Jed Rakoff. Or hell, what about Michelle Alexander?) Or Bartlet not taking any action on the death penalty because he “respects separation of powers.” (Compare with Obama’s long reluctance to grant clemency petitions.) Or the choice to keep a far-right Republican in Congress because he’s supposedly a politically useful antagonist and fundraising tool. (Compare with Andrew Cuomo’s deliberate maintenance of a Republican majority in the New York Senate, or Joe Biden giving a paid speech for a Republican congressman instead of his Democratic opponent.) Bartlet takes on the left and creates a Blue Ribbon Commission to study new “options” for entitlement programs, i.e. Social Security cuts. Obama did almost the exact same thing. The Bartlet administration, like the Obama administration, excused its failures by suggesting there was nothing else it could have done, but as with Obama, when we look at the particular moments at which clear choices were made, we can see that this is false and that actually, the failure was due to ideology rather than necessity. 

Certain mildly progressive measures are taken during the first season of the West Wing. Bartlet signs a banking bill that prevents “total bank deregulation” and appears to include one or two consumer protection measures. He appoints some “reformers” to the Federal Elections Commission, although it seems that this is purely symbolic. Justice Mendoza is confirmed, though we should remember that Mendoza was not the administration’s first choice. As with Obama’s, Bartlet’s staff would happily reel off a list of proud progressive accomplishments to any skeptic (tax credits for inner city public school teachers or something). 

The West Wing reunion special even manages to show how liberalism has evolved in the years since the show first aired. The original show clearly had a race problem, with the only major character of color being the president’s personal aide. In the reunion, the role of chief of staff has been recast with a Black actor (the original actor died during the show’s run), though not a word of the script has changed. Thus the show manages to look slightly more progressive through a change in personnel rather than in its politics. (The creators also wisely did not choose to recreate one of the episodes in which actors make outright sexist comments.) This is a useful example of what my colleagues Yasmin Nair and Eli Massey call “inclusion in the atrocious,” adding more diverse and meritocratic features to an unjust institution in order to legitimize it. 

We should not make the mistake of writing off the West Wing as a bad show with an unrealistic depiction of American politics. It is better understood as an essential show, a seven-season-long indictment of centrist politics that takes place in a self-righteous, delusional “boys’ club” of high-ranking government officials. It’s a tragedy about “educated fools,” a documentary about Obama made before Obama got to office. As the film Starship Troopers shows what fascism looks like to fascists, the West Wing shows what liberalism looks like to liberals. It attempts to hold the Bartlet administration up as virtuous and sensible, but it makes the mistake of accurately portraying the basic facts of Washington politics, which means the falsity of the show’s thesis is exposed within the show itself. If you want to figure out what has gone wrong with the Democratic Party, one of the best ways to do so is to watch the West Wing and ask yourself: when you set aside the personalities, the irrelevant drama, the rationalizations, what is actually going on and whether it is in fact correct and good. 

More In: Editor’s Notes

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A fall edition loaded with surprises and wonders! With articles on: the socialist tendencies of ants, the wretched memoirs of billionaires, the malevolence of Big Tobacco, and much, much more. Plus: nude leftists! Shapes of the month! A secret DNC memo! And a comic about Chuck Schumer meeting aliens.

The Latest From Current Affairs