Ask any Democratic political junkie what their favorite television show is, and the response will almost unanimously be “The West Wing.” For me, Aaron Sorkin’s political masterpiece came along at a pivotal point in my life. As a young college graduate and then law school student, I was looking for a way to make my mark on the world but wasn’t entirely sure of the best way to do it. It’s no exaggeration to say The West Wing was the thing that drove me to embrace public service, and I know I’m not the only one.
I bring this up because yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of the West Wing on NBC. Honestly, it’s hard to look at the show and not feel depressed about how it has aged. I’m not talking about the way people dressed or how a world before social media seems almost prehistoric. The aesthetic changes don’t bother me; it’s the total disintegration of our national political discourse.
The West Wing: A Love Letter to Democracy
At its core, The West Wing was aspirational, perhaps more than any television show before or since. Aaron Sorkin famously called the show a love letter to democracy. Because the show wanted our leaders to be better, we wanted our leaders to be better. And some of us got into politics to be those better leaders, the disciples of President Josiah Bartlet. We aspired to fulfill the promise of public service as a vehicle not to enrich ourselves, but to help others. Not only did we love the idea of smart, passionate, but also flawed people running our government, we wanted to be them.
But sadly, the idyllic view of how government works in The West Wing universe is unrecognizable today. The rise of Donald Trump took all of those noble ideals, ran them through a swamp, and fed them to the country for dinner. It’s almost as though someone decided to make a bad right-wing parody of the show to mock anyone lame enough to believe in it. If The West Wing was heaven for those who love democracy, we are almost certainly living in hell.
So what happened? Where did it all go wrong?
The Death of Empathy in American Politics
One major contributing factor is the decline of empathy in America. Empathy was the fuel that powered The West Wing; an idea that despite our political differences, there is ultimately more that unites us than divides us. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. Trumpism is built on the concept that for me to succeed, someone else has to fail. Instead of a rising tide raising all boats, we now need to make sure nobody else gets a life jacket.
At one point in the show, President Bartlet hands over the Presidency to the Republican Speaker of the House because he wasn’t fit to handle his daughter’s kidnapping. Imagine if such a thing happened today; we can all practically hear Trump’s response. “I like children who don’t get kidnapped. Sorry Tiffany, but you’re a huge loser who probably deserved to be taken by terrorists, who many people say are just horribly misunderstood.”
Another critical component is the idea that being smart is no longer an asset for leadership but a liability. The West Wing touches on this during President Bartlet’s re-election against Florida Governor
George W. Bush Rob Ritchie. This exchange between the two candidates unknowingly foreshadowed our current state of political discourse:
Bartlet is inviting, if not practically begging, his opponent to engage with him on substantive issues of policy. His opponent replies by basically telling him that jocks rule and nerds drool. Why take on the smart kid in the classroom, where you know you’re going to lose when you can just give him a wedgie on the playground and declare victory?
Donald Trump: The Anti-Bartlet
The tragedy here isn’t so much that Donald Trump employed these tactics, but that so many Americans fell for them (and continue to do so). The West Wing presupposed that in addition to empathy, Americans wanted to know more about how government impacts their lives, not less. Instead of a full meal, millions of voters decided they prefer a Slim Jim and a Four Loko.
But the blame cannot be heaped solely upon Donald Trump. Democrats, especially the corporate centrist wing of the party, also strayed from the House that Sorkin Built. By trying to be “Republican-Lite” in the hopes that special interest campaign dollars flowed their way, many Democrats took voters for granted.
The result was the conventional wisdom that “they’re all the same,” which means it doesn’t really matter who is in charge. And since it doesn’t matter who is running the country, why not vote for the guy that will stick it to all of those worthless career politicians? Since intellect is evidently no longer necessary to be President of the United States, let’s have some fun. I mean, what could go wrong?
Of course, now we know exactly what could go wrong. Foreign interference in our elections. The rise of white nationalism in America. Children being kept in cages. Insane tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans widening the untenable income equality gap. The delegitimization of the news media. The list keeps growing every single day.
Ironically, if any of these events had shown up in an episode of The West Wing, fans would have blasted the show for being so ridiculously unrealistic. That’s how far afield we’ve gone from the political world that so many of us wanted to inhabit.
Can The West Wing Make America Aspirational Again?
In these dark days of political despair, it seems appropriate to draw from the lessons of the show and the fictional president that taught us to be aspirational. This speech from President Bartlet is both a reminder of where we’ve been and a call to action for perfecting the promise of America.
And lest anyone say these words are no longer relevant in today’s political climate, consider this. Minutes after giving this speech, President Bartlet was shot, not by a foreign terrorist with dark skin, but a young white nationalist from Virginia. Eighteen years before Charlottesville and Donald Trump infamously referring to white nationalists as “very fine people.”
“I just want to mention that at several points during the evening, I was referred to as both a liberal and a populist. And the fellow fourth from the back called me a socialist. Which was nice, I hadn’t heard that for a while. Actually, I’m an economics professor. My great-grandfather’s great-grandfather was Dr. Josiah Bartlet, who was the New Hampshire delegate to the Second Continental Congress, the one that sat in session in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 and announced to the world that we were no longer subjects of King George III, but rather a self-governing people. We hold these truths to be self-evident, they said. That all men are created equal. Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up. Class dismissed.”
The beautiful thing about idealism is that ideas never die, and they can never be taken away as long as we continue to aspire to them. Now, more than ever, we must take action to protect those ideals, no matter how far off they may seem.
“Decisions are made by those who show up,” the West Wing tells us. Those words ring as true now as they did two decades ago. The only difference is that the stakes are much, much higher. Our fictional fantasy has been twisted into our grim reality. If you’re ready to be part of the solution, ask yourself a simple question: