On The West Wing, Ivy-educated, smart aleck, elitist liberal Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford center right) ran the country while Donna Moss (Janel Maloney, center left) ran Josh, a relationship that helped make the show a very funny workplace comedy. “Center right” here locates Whitford in the photo. In a post at Front Porch Republic, Pete Davis makes the case that center right describes not just Josh Lyman’s but the entire Bartlett Administration’s approach to government.
Over the last year or so, Oliver Mannion has been working his way through the entire seven-season run of The West Wing on Netflix. I haven’t done much watching with him but I have listened in from the next room and come running when called to watch what Oliver’s thought a particularly good scene or exchange of dialog and it’s reminded me what a smart, witty, funny and fun show it could be. I needed the reminding. I’d stopped watching it regularly after I forget which season, fourth or fifth, I think, because it annoyed me, and I’d been remembering it as mainly annoying.
The show had its annoying aspects from the start. Could devote seven or eight posts to that. But for now, a big one was its habit---really Aaron Sorkin’s habit---of taking itself too seriously as a political drama.
For me the show was at its best when it contented itself with being a workplace comedy, a show about a group of mixed up characters doing their best to get along with each other despite their foibles, flaws, vanities, and emotional turmoils and struggling to do their jobs well while being continually thwarted as much by their own goof-ups as by anything else. Oliver showed me a very funny scene recently, a five minute opening sequence in which most of the humor arose from making fun of the show’s two male heartthrobs, Sam and Josh, and built to the punchline, “Mr President, you know how you told me not to wake you up unless the building was on fire?”
I also liked it as an understated drama about the human condition. Its portrait of a marriage---Jed and Abby Barrett’s---is one of the most beautiful and insightful ever to grace television.
But all too often things shifted into high melodramatic action as politics took over the storyline. Our gang of lovable goofs stopped being lovable goofs and became a team of intellectual and idealistic action heroes fighting for truth, justice, and the Liberal Democratic Way. Which would have been all right if you didn’t think about how the suspense was in whether or not the team would win the day on what amounted to a routine if not trivial case of logrolling and also if you didn’t notice that the team’s strength lay in their ability to out-talk and out-quip successions of straw men and women whose only rhetorical gift was handing our heroes’ straight lines on silver platters.
And, then, just as often, Sorkin would take us all to Liberal Church where we’d be subjected to sermons---well-written, very well delivered sermons, but still sermons in form and intent---to which we in the congregation were expected to nod along in agreement, feeling either inspired or chastised, depending on whether or not the preacher thought the communion of Liberal saints in heaven were happy with us that day. And again this would have been all right if you didn’t think about the actual content of the sermons which was usually as deep and original as an editorial in the New York Times, which was where Sorkin probably cribbed them all from.
What really annoyed me, though, and what finally drove me to give up watching was the fact that the entire executive branch and apparently most of the legislative branch was run by a handful of Ivy-educated, yuppie smart alecks and this was presented as a good thing.
I need to add predominately male and entirely white Ivy-educated yuppie smartasses.
Of course, for budgetary reasons and for the sake of storytelling economy, the focus had to be on the cast of main characters and semi-regulars (which was quite large for a network TV show). That’s how TV works. Very few shows can do what David Simon did on The Wire, recreate an entire city. Sorkin couldn’t put all of Washington into the West Wing, just as M*A*S*H couldn’t fit the whole Korean War into its episodic storylines, not even with having the war last three times longer than it actually did. And just on the smaller scale it had to work on, with M*A*S*H you had to overlook that the United States Army had apparently assigned only four doctors, six nurses, and one transvestite corpsman to take care of all the wounded in Korea. Meanwhile, on a show that was set on an even much smaller scale, on Cheers the bar somehow stayed open twelve hours a day, six days a week with a staff of two bartenders and two waitresses. One waitress after Diane/Shelley Long left. How long would Sam have lasted if on Friday and Saturday nights customers’ only hope in getting a drink lay in catching the attention of Carla Tortelli without annoying her in the process?
In the end, though, Hawkeye and Trapper’s heroism was expressed in their treatment of individual patients not in their winning the war, which was actually shown to be unwinnable because the human love of war was the enemy not the Korean Conflict. And Sam’s real talent as a businessman was the rather common one shared by every successful owner of a bar or restaurant, making his place a welcoming place for all sorts and conditions, and his greatest virtue as a person was his taking care of his friends.
On The West Wing, however, the team was often shown winning the war on their own and we were meant to admire them and root for them because they had talents and virtues superior to just about everyone else in Washington and were therefore capable of running the government on their own. And then we were encouraged to think that wouldn’t the country be better off if this was how it worked, if a handful of people just like us ran the government on their own. In short, a show about an ostensibly liberal Democratic presidency was at heart undemocratic and not just conservative but elitist to the point of being aristocratic in its sensibilities.
And at a certain point this sensibility began to dominate the show and that’s point I stopped watching.
Unfortunately, going by what I’ve read online since, it’s the point at which many liberals blogging, twittering, Facebooking, and commenting began taking the show to heart as political manual and gospel. They think that the way the Bartlett Administration operates is the way good government should work and could work if only real life Democrats watched the show and learned its lessons and they argue---and complain and criticize and get angry and frustrated---based on their judgment of how closely the Democrats in Congress and the White House have followed the examples of Jed Bartlett and Josh Lyman, as if every political battle could be won just by being better educated and more eloquent than the Republicans.
So you won’t be surprised that I liked this post at Front Porch Republic by a young---I’m guessing thirtyish---progressive activist named Pete Davis on The West Wing’s pernicious effect on his generation’s political education and nodded my head in agreement throughout, particularly when I came upon paragraphs like this:
Inside-the-Beltway wheeling and dealing is the definition of democracy to people like [former top advisor to President Obama Jim] Messina. When he referred to his own ability, as Deputy Chief of Staff to the President [Josh Lyman’s job on The West Wing], to influence legislation as an example of what “democracy” is, he must have forgotten that the ability of the king’s court to influence legislation is a characteristic of both democracies and dictatorships. And what is to be done about the teeming millions outside of the king’s court? Messina’s plan: ignore them, until you need their money, their time and their votes every four years.
Davis makes other good points about The West Wing and its politics---which he sees an actual lack of politics or, rather, the practice of politics for politics’ sake with no guiding vision except winning the day’s debate---and you should read the whole thing.
Naturally, though, there are some things about Davis’ argument that annoyed me.
One is that in criticizing The West Wing’s celebration of small scale, incremental, and essentially centrist political goals and what he sees as the real-life Democratic Party’s pursuing those goals to no grander purpose and with no larger guiding vision, he neglects to take into account the effect of the Republican Party’s very political power. The Republicans control the majority of the levers of government at the state and federal level and over the last twenty years the Democrats have needed to spend an awful lot of time, effort, energy, and political capital to prevent them from pulling all those levers. Ahead of being able to get anything we want done, they’ve had to stop a great many things we have from being undone.
The Democrats have had to adopt a policy of containment out of sheer desperation. The worry is that they may have resigned themselves to being limited to being satisfied with containment for the foreseeable future. That would mean they’ve effectively accepted as their fate being a permanent minority party despite winning the majority of votes in election after election.
Like too many progressives, Davis doesn’t seem to think it matters that the Republicans control Congress and most of the State Houses.
(Note, because some liberals and many progressives need to be reminded over and over: even when the Democrats held the Senate majority, the Republicans controlled Congress by virtue of the House’s ability to veto just about any piece of legislation, not to mention that they held just enough Senate seats to block cloture on just about everything there. The period when the Democrats held majorities in both chambers and had a supermajority in the Senate was extremely brief and in that short period they still did not have a liberal majority. In fact, during that period the likes of Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh effectively controlled Congress with their constant and credible threats of not voting for cloture on whatever the Republicans were filibustering.)
Another thing Davis does is, while rightly criticizing The West Wing’s emphasis to the point of being blind to everything else on a centralized as well as centrist approach to good government and pointing out how much good can and is being done by activists working far outside the beltway, write as if, contra Tip O’Neill, all politics is national.
I get no sense that Davis has any more sense than lots of other political junkies on the web and in the field that the Republicans’ success on the national level stems directly from their successes on the local level. They have been determinedly as focused on winning local and state elections as on winning the Presidency. Maybe more so. Joni Ernst---God save us---didn’t spring fully grown from the forehead of Ronald Reagan. She worked her way up from her first elected position as county auditor. Winning those down ticket elections matter and the Republicans have done a good job of winning them.
You can demoralize yourself by giving your opponents too much credit, but you can’t beat them if you don’t give them their due credit.
But what really annoyed me about Davis’ post was his example of a politician with an exemplary vision.
This is ironic, considering that before 2000 few people knew that Ralph Nader had a vision for the future of the nation. He was an idealist, no question, but he’d always seemed to take a pragmatic, one problem at a time approach to fixing what needed fixing and righting what needed righting and then that the grand vision he seemed to have adopted depended on our putting Ralph Nader and his relative handful of overeducated, elitist, and white activists in charge of everything.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Anyway, head on over to Front Porch Republic and read the whole post, Beyond Josh Lyman Politics: How the West Wing Miseducated My Political Generation.
Then treat yourself to a few episodes of The West Wing on Netflix. It really is a good workplace comedy. Fun place to start would be the episode I mentioned up top, “The Leadership Breakfast.”