It seems like I am forever playing catchup with my sources of entertainment. Half a decade after The West Wing finished airing, I finally took the time to finish all 156 episodes. Seeing as each episode is 42 minutes long, this is on hindsight an incredible waste of my short mortal life, but goddammit it is the best waste of life ever produced for American TV.
Politics for most people is a battle of words and ideas. Political discourse for the average person is conducted in pretty much the same way most hypothetical physics questions are answered: in a vacuum frictionless room containing a perfect sphere. While convincing arguments can be made on paper and discussion boards, the real problem with politics is that it involves humans who are irrational, illogical and whose shit is generally all retarded.
Politics, as it applies to real-world governing, must therefore necessarily go beyond merely finding out and trying to convince people of the best solutions to society’s problems, but also compromising and making the most of any situation in a debate populated by people who will never see eye-to-eye with you, perhaps even rightfully so.
The West Wing, a serial drama depicting the fictional presidency of bleeding-heart liberal Josiah Bartlet (portrayed by Martin Sheen, who is also the voice of the Illusive Man in Mass Effect), highlights the human side of politics and in doing so paints a picture of democracy that feels closer to the truth than the caricatures spewing talking points on cable news.
Whether you find The West Wing to be an uplifting feel-good story of people trying to do good in an imperfect world or a depressing look into the way backroom political deals that affect the lives of billions are made for the most trivial of reasons depends on how much (or little) you already know about American politics. If you went in like wide-eyed Bambi, happily oblivious to the money politics and unscrupulous maneuvering taking place behind the scenes, you might enjoy the show’s implications less than a more seasoned cynic who got to see the softer side of the story.
My recently rekindled Magic addiction has left me thinking about the idea of the “metagame”, which I think is an appropriate description for the kind of politics portrayed in The West Wing. At the basic level, the game is a debate of ideas: does single-payer work better than private health insurance companies? But the metagame is the larger picture: knowing the opinions of all the other players in the playing field and the facts of the situation, how do you then go about winning each particular game? That’s a level of strategy that most online political debate will never consider.
While ultimately not all rainbows and sunshine, The West Wing presents a compelling case for the audience to be conservatively optimistic in the democratic process. Of course, the real hardened cynic would note that this is exactly what the media would have you believe with its thinly-veiled propaganda film.
Although the series has a clear liberal leaning in that it depicts a Democratic White House and most of the main characters generally fall on the left side of spectrum when it comes to hot-button issues such as the separation of church and state, education reform and gun control, the series does not serve as an advocate for any particular issue. It generally tries to humanize both sides of the debate while highlighting failures and imperfections in the system wherever they crop up, such as how the corn industry in the US wields disproportional influence on the formulation of public policy (such as corn-derived ethanol being pushed as “clean” energy) due to the importance of the Iowa caucuses in determining presidential nominees.
In fact, the show can sometimes be too mind-bogglingly apolitical for a story that is supposed to be set in the White House. For example, throughout the series, President Bartlet does not make a single policy speech on-screen. Major speeches, such as the State of the Union, are always cut off right after he steps up to the podium. The sole exception to this is a presidential debate that takes place in the last season where the two candidates actually speak substantially on real political issues such as education and healthcare reforms. I suppose this is because backlash was no longer a concern for the producers in the show’s final season and they felt it was a good opportunity to help raise the level of political awareness.
The West Wing has a knack of surprising you with fresh insights by attaching abstract ideas — often ones you disagree with — to the passionate voices of flawed but lovable characters as they go about trying to run a country. It will occasionally challenge your preconceived notions by lending voice to other ideas.
One particularly memorable example of this is when the black Democratic mayor of Washington D.C. met with President Bartlet to discuss a rider passed by the Republican Congress to create an experimental program allowing some parents in D.C. to have the option to receive school vouchers to pay for private schools. The rider was attached to the spending bill for D.C.’s budget and President Bartlet reassured the mayor that he was going to veto the bill because school vouchers take funding away from public schools. But the mayor surprised the president by requesting that he signed the bill because public schools in D.C. were not improving and the mayor felt that he owed it to the children of his district to at least try out the Republicans’ idea.
You will grow fond of these characters and feel like you are watching them every step of the way as they develop as individuals over the course of an eight-year presidency and do their best to make the country better, or at least not collapse under its own weight.
The West Wing is an highly intelligent show and I highly recommend it to everyone with an interest in politics. Of course, given that I am five years late to the game, this is probably a meaningless recommendation.
This is somewhat of a spoiler, but I find it interesting how closely the fictional election depicted in the series’ final season parallels the 2008 elections: The young minority Democrat beaming with naive enthusiasm and the old moderate Republican with a reputation for being a maverick in his own party. The writers must be amazed by their own prescience.
Also, the eighth episode of season five titled “Shutdown” depicts a federal government shutdown after the Republican Congress fails to agree with the President on the budget bill. This is obviously intended to echo the shutdown that happened during the Clinton administration, but it is also very relevant to the on-going stand-off between the Obama administration and the Republican House of Representatives over the national debt ceiling and the possibility of an impending government shutdown. The players may be different, but the name of the game is still “more tax cuts”.