How Liberals Fell In Love With The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin’s political drama shows everything wrong with the Democratic worldview…

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In the history of prestige tv, few dramas have had quite the cultural staying power of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.

Set during the two terms of fictional Democratic President and Nobel Laureate in Economics  Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) the show depicts the inner workings of a sympathetic liberal administration grappling with the daily exigencies of governing. Every procedure and protocol, every piece of political brokerage—from State of the Union addresses to legislative tugs of war to Supreme Court appointments—is recreated with an aesthetic authenticity enabled by ample production values (a single episode reportedly cost almost $3 million to produce) and rendered with a dramatic flair that stylizes all the bureaucratic banality of modern governance.

Nearly the same, of course, might be said for other glossy political dramas such as Netflix’s House of Cards or Scandal. But The West Wing aspires to more than simply visual verisimilitude. Breaking with the cynicism or amoralism characteristic of many dramas about politics, it offers a vision of political institutions which is ultimately affirmative and approving. What we see throughout its seven seasons are Democrats governing as Democrats imagine they govern, with the Bartlet Administration standing in for liberalism as liberalism understands itself.

More than simply a fictional account of an idealized liberal presidency, then, The West Wing is an elaborate fantasia founded upon the shibboleths that sustain Beltway liberalism and the milieu that produced them.

“Ginger, get the popcorn

The filibuster is in

I’m Toby Ziegler with The Drop In

What Kind of Day Has It Been?

It’s Lin, speaking the truth

—Lin-Manuel Miranda, “What’s Next?

During its run from 1999 to 2006, The West Wing garnered immense popularity and attention, capturing three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Emmys and building a devout fanbase among Democratic partisans, Beltway acolytes, and people of the liberal-ish persuasion the world over. Since its finale more than a decade ago, it has become an essential part of the liberal cultural ecosystem, its importance arguably on par with The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and the rap musical about the founding fathers people like for some reason.

If anything, its fandom has only continued to grow with age: In the summer of 2016, a weekly podcast hosted by seasons 4-7 star Joshua Malina, launched with the intent of running through all 154 episodes (at a rate of one per week), almost immediately garnered millions of downloads; an elaborate fan wiki with almost 2000 distinct entries is maintained and regularly updated, magisterially documenting every mundane detail of the West Wing cosmos save the characters’ bowel movements; and, in definitive proof of the silence of God, superfan Lin-Manuel Miranda has recently recorded a rap named for one of the show’s most popular catchphrases (“What’s next?”).

While certainly appealing to a general audience thanks to its expensive sheen and distinctive writing, The West Wing’s greatest zealots have proven to be those who professionally inhabit the very milieu it depicts: Washington political staffers, media types, centrist cognoscenti, and various others drawn from the ranks of people who tweet “Big, if true” in earnest and think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil.  

The West Wing “took something that was for the most part considered dry and nerdy—especially to people in high school and college—and sexed it up,” former David Axelrod advisor Eric Lesser told Vanity Fair in a longform 2012 feature about the “Sorkinization of politics” (Axelrod himself having at one point advised West Wing writer Eli Attie). It “very much served as inspiration”, said Micah Lasher, a staffer who then worked for Michael Bloomberg.

Thanks to its endless depiction of procedure and policy, the show naturally gibed with the wonkish libidos of future Voxsplainers Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. “There’s a cultural meme or cultural suggestion that Washington is boring, that policy is boring, but it’s important stuff,” said Klein, adding that the show dramatized “the immediacy and urgency and concern that people in this town feel about the issues they’re working on.” “I was interested in politics before the show started,” added Yglesias. “But a friend of mine from college moved to D.C. at the same time as me, after graduation, and we definitely plotted our proposed domination of the capital in explicitly West Wing terms: Who was more like Toby? Who was more like Josh?”

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.

In serving up this optimistic simulacrum of modern US politics, Sorkin’s universe has repeatedly intersected with real-life US politics. Following the first season, and in the midst of the 2000 presidential election contest, Salon’s Joyce Millman wrote: “Al Gore could clinch the election right now by staging as many photo-ops with the cast of The West Wing as possible.” A poll published during the same election found that most voters preferred Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet to Bush or Gore. A 2008 New York Times article predicted an Obama victory on the basis of the show’s season 6-7 plot arc. The same election year, the paper published a fictionalized exchange between Bartlet and Barack Obama penned by Sorkin himself. 2016 proved no exception, with the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis reacting to Donald Trump’s victory by saying: “I’m going to hug my West Wing boxset a little closer tonight, that’s for sure.”

Appropriately, many of the show’s cast members, leveraging their on-screen personas, have participated or intervened in real Democratic Party politics. During the 2016 campaign, star Bradley Whitford—who portrays frenetically wily strategist Josh Lyman—was invited to “reveal” who his [fictional] boss would endorse:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Hillary would be President Bartlet’s choice. She’s—nobody is more prepared to take that position on day one. I know this may be controversial. But yes, on behalf of Jed Bartlet, I want to endorse Hillary Clinton.”

Six leading members of the cast, including Whitford, were even dispatched to Ohio to stump for Clinton (inexplicably failing to swing the crucial state in her favor).

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During the Democratic primary season Rob Lowe (who appeared from 1999-2003 before leaving in protest at the ostensible stinginess of his $75,000/episode salary) even deployed a clip from the show and paraphrased his own character’s lines during an attack on Bernie Sanders’ tax plan: “Watching Bernie Sanders. He’s hectoring and yelling at me WHILE he’s saying he’s going to raise our taxes. Interesting way to communicate.” In Season 2 episode “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You”, Lowe’s character Sam Seaborn angrily lectures a team of speechwriters:  

“Every time your boss got on the stump and said, ‘It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share,’ I hid under a couch and changed my name…The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for twenty-two percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying.”

What is the actual ideology of The West Wing? Just like the real American liberalism it represents, the show proved to be something of a political weather vane throughout its seven seasons on the air.

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.

The lack of any serious attempts to change anything reflect a certain apolitical tendency in this type of politics, one that defines itself by its manner and attitude rather than a vision of the change it wishes to see in the world. Insofar as there is an identifiable ideology, it isn’t one definitively wedded to a particular program of reform, but instead to a particular aesthetic of political institutions. The business of leveraging democracy for any specific purpose comes second to how its institutional liturgy and processes look and, more importantly, how they make us feel—virtue being attached more to posture and affect than to any particular goal. Echoing Sorkin’s 1995 film The American President (in many ways the progenitor of The West Wing) it delights in invoking “seriousness” and the supposedly hard-headed pragmatism of grownups.

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Consider a scene from Season 2’s “The War at Home”, in which Toby Ziegler confronts a rogue Democratic Senator over his objections to Social Security cuts prospectively to be made in collaboration with a Republican Congress. The episode’s protagonist certainly isn’t the latter, who tries to draw a line in the sand over the “compromising of basic Democratic values” and threatens to run a third party presidential campaign, only to be admonished acerbically by Ziegler:  

“If you think demonizing people who are trying to govern responsibly is the way to protect our liberal base, then speaking as a liberal…go to bed, would you please?…Come at us from the left, and I’m gonna own your ass.”

The administration and its staff are invariably depicted as tribunes of the serious and the mature, their ideological malleability taken to signify their virtue more than any fealty to specific liberal principles.

Even when the show ventures to criticize the institutions of American democracy, it never retreats from a foundational reverence for their supposed enlightenment and the essential nobility of most of the people who administer them. As such, the presidency’s basic function is to appear presidential and, more than anything, Jed Bartlet’s patrician aura and respectable disposition make him the perfect avatar for the West Wing universe’s often maudlin deference to the liturgy of “the office.” “Seriousness,” then— the superlative quality in the Sorkin taxonomy of virtues—implies presiding over the political consensus, tinkering here and there, and looking stylish in the process by way of soaring oratory and white-collar chic.   

“Make this election about smart, and not. Make it about engaged, and not. Qualified, and not. Make it about a heavyweight. You’re a heavyweight. And you’ve been holding me up for too many rounds.”

—Toby Ziegler, Hartsfield’s Landing (Season 3, Episode 14)

Despite its relatively thin ideological commitments, there is a general tenor to the West Wing universe that cannot be called anything other than smug.

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.  

In Toby Ziegler’s “smart and not,” “qualified and not” formulation, we can see a preview of the (disastrous) rhetorical strategy that Hillary Clinton would ultimately adopt against Donald Trump. Don’t make it about vision, make it about qualification. Don’t make it about your plans for how to make people’s lives better, make it about your superior moral character. Fundamentally, make it about how smart and good and serious you are, and how bad and dumb and unserious they are.

“The administration and its staff are invariably depicted as tribunes of the serious and the mature, their ideological malleability taken to signify their virtue…”

In this respect, The West Wing’s foundational serious/unserious binary falls squarely within the tradition that has since evolved into the “epic own/evisceration” genre characteristic of social media and late night TV, in which the aim is to ruthlessly use one’s intellect to expose the idiocy and hypocrisy of the other side. In a famous scene from Season 4’s “Game On”, Bartlet debates his Republican rival Governor Robert Ritchie (James Brolin). Their exchange, prompted by a question about the role of the federal government, is the stuff of a John Oliver wet dream:  

Richie: My view of this is simple. We don’t need a federal Department of Education telling us our children have to learn Esperanto, they have to learn Eskimo poetry. Let the states decide, let the communities decide on health care and education, on lower taxes, not higher taxes. Now he’s going to throw a big word at you — ‘unfunded mandate’, he’s going to say if Washington lets the states do it, it’s an unfunded mandate. But what he doesn’t like is the federal government losing power. I call it the ingenuity of the American people.”

Bartlet: Well first of all let’s clear up a couple of things: unfunded mandate is two words, not one big word. There are times when we are 50 states and there are times when we’re one country and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn’t fight Germany in World War Two or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall, now that’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got 12.6 billion dollars in federal money last year from Nebraskans and Virginia’s and New Yorkers and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry — 12.6 out of the state budget of 50 billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question so here it is: Can we have it back please?”

In an even more famous scene from Season 2 episode “The Midterms”, Bartlet humiliates homophobic talk radio host Jenna Jacobs by quoting scripture from memory, destroying her by her very own logic.

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If Richie and Jacobs are the obtuse yokels to be epically taken down with facts and reason, the show also elevates several conservative characters to reinforce its postpartisan celebration of The Discourse. Republicans come in two types: slack-jawed caricatures, and people whose high-mindedness and mutual enthusiasm for Putting Differences Aside make them the Bartlet Administration’s natural allies or friends regardless of whatever conflicts of values they may ostensibly have. Foremost among the latter is Vinick: a moderate, pro-choice Republican who resembles John McCain (at least the imaginary “maverick” John McCain that liberals continue to pretend exists) and is appointed by Bartlet’s Democratic successor Matthew Santos to be Secretary of State. (In reality, there is no such thing as a “moderate” Republican, only a polite one. The upright and genial Paul Ryan, whom President Bartlet would have loved, is on a lifelong quest to dismantle every part of America’s feeble social safety net.)

Thus Bartlet Democrats do not see Republicans as the “enemy,” except to the extent that they are rude or insufficiently respectful of the rules of political decorum. In one Season 5 plot, the administration opts to install a Ruth Bader Ginsburg clone (Glenn Close) as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The price it pays—willingly, as it turns out—is giving the other vacancy to an ultra-conservative justice, for the sole reason that Bartlet’s staff find their amiable squabbling stimulating. Anyone with substantively progressive political values would be horrified by a liberal president’s appointment of an Antonin Scalia-style textualist to the Supreme Court. But if your values are procedural, based more on the manner in which people conduct themselves rather than the consequences they actually bring about, it’s easy to chuckle along with a hard-right conservative, so long as they are personally charming (Ziegler: “I hate him, but he’s brilliant. And the two of them together are fighting like cats and dogs … but it works.”)

“What’s next?”

Through its idealized rendering of American politics and its institutions, The West Wing offers a comforting avenue of escape from the grim and often dystopian reality of the present. If the show, despite its age, has continued to find favor and relevance among liberals, Democrats, and assorted Beltway acolytes alike, it is because it reflects and affirms their worldview with greater fidelity and catharsis than any of its contemporaries.

But if anything gives that worldview pause, it should be the events of the past eight years. Liberals got a real life Josiah Bartlet in the figure of Barack Obama, a charismatic and stylish politician elected on a populist wave. But Obama’s soaring speeches, quintessentially presidential affect, and deference to procedure did little to fundamentally improve the country or prevent his Republican rivals from storming the Congressional barricades at their first opportunity. Confronted by a mercurial TV personality bent on transgressing every norm and truism of Beltway thinking, Democrats responded by exhaustively informing voters of his indecency and hypocrisy, attempting to destroy him countless times with his own logic, but ultimately leaving him completely intact. They smugly taxonomized as “smart” and “dumb” the very electorate they needed to win over, and retreated into an ideological fever dream in which political success doesn’t come from organizing and building power, but from having the most polished arguments and the most detailed policy statements. If you can just crush Trump in the debates, as Bartlet did to Richie, then you’ve won. (That’s not an exaggeration of the worldview. Ezra Klein published an article entitled “Hillary Clinton’s 3 debate performances left the Trump campaign in ruins,” which entirely eliminated the distinction between what happens in debates and what happens in campaigns. The belief that politics is about argument rather than power is likely a symptom of a Democratic politics increasingly incubated in the Ivy League rather than the labor movement.)

Now, facing defeat and political crisis, the overwhelming liberal instinct has not been self-reflection but a further retreat into fantasy and orthodoxy. Like viewers at the climax of The West Wing’s original run, they sit waiting for the decisive gestures and gratifying crescendos of a series finale, only to find their favorite plotlines and characters meandering without resolution. Shockingly, life is not a television program, and Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get to write the ending.

The West Wing is many things: a uniquely popular and lavish effort in prestige TV; an often crisply-written drama; a fictionalized paean to Beltway liberalism’s foundational precepts; a wonkish celebration of institutions and processes; an exquisitely-tailored piece of political fanfiction.

But, in 2017, it is foremost a series of glittering illusions to be abandoned.

Illustrations by Meg T. Callahan.