I like The West Wing. I think it’s a good TV show. I also think that it is could be the single most culturally detrimental thing to happen to the Democratic Party in my 32-year lifetime. As entertainment, The West Wing is a positive force for good. As a political theory, The West Wing helped elect Trump. Check out this poll from Data for Progress that reveals some fundamental truths about who holds power in the Democratic Party and how it gets used.
For the uninitiated, The West Wing is a wildly popular NBC show that ran from 1999 to 2006—depicting a Democratic presidential administration that just wants to help bring America together for bipartisan, common-sense solutions. The show was created and written by Aaron Sorkin, last seen patronizing new, young Democrats by saying they need to “stop acting like young people,” then immediately asserting that an “opportunity for Democrats to be the non-stupid party” exists—definitely not insinuating that these new young people in Congress are stupid (at age 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest Congressperson ever). Sorkin followed that up by saying “it's not just about transgender bathrooms”—also definitely not insinuating that transgender rights are supposedly a distraction from the “real” issues.
If you're not familiar with Aaron Sorkin, now you are, and you have a little better understanding as to why the Democratic Party is the way that it is. (And for a deeper read, be sure to check out this excellent Current Affairs piece on how liberals fell in love with the show.) Here's another, more direct summary of the old guard of the Democratic Party from D.C. veteran and Fellow at the Open Markets Institute, Matt Stoller.
Because we live in a world where young Democrats actually do demonstrate that they are the non-stupid party, Sorkin's superficial Howard Schultz-esque hyperbole was met with policy and logic-based force from the face of the new, young Democrats.
The West Wing is a show that values bipartisanship more than policy outcomes. No event better expresses Sorkin’s Washington wet dream than Democratic President Jed Bartlet’s appointment of a conservative judge to replace a conservative Supreme Court justice. Out in the real world, AOC and the new, young crop of Democratic politicians joined activists like Sunrise Movement in pushing the Green New Deal from complete unknown to mainstream Democratic policy in six months. These two events are a perfect contrast between how the old guard of Democrats wish good policy got done and how the new crop of (young, middle-aged and old) Democrats are proving good policy actually gets done.
The West Wing reflected the technocratic neoliberalism that has dominated the Democratic Party for the last 40 years—the belief that politics is forever a infinitesimally slow march towards some immeasurable future point of progress—and the best way to improve the world is to just put some smart people in a room and have dramatic, drawn out conversations where they move their hands a lot and then walk and talk down an endless series of hallways in definitely not a hurried attempt to make their empty, run-on sentences look far more substantive than they really are.
The short story of how we lost to Donald Trump lies in the politics of The West Wing. The politics of late 20th century liberalism center Republicans in its worldview, because the ideology is centered around achieving the ultimate outcome of bipartisanship. This means that before the fight even begins, some Democrats openly tell Republicans that they are dying to pass Republican policies.
America is a crumbling empire. The world is heating to a point where a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures would cost the equivalent of 92% 2017’s global GDP to deal with. Dying due to lack of health insurance is one of the ten biggest causes of death in this country. This is what the last 40 years of “bipartisanship” hath wrought. Democrats spent decades trying to compromise with the most far-right mainstream party in the Western world, and now a guy whose only claims to fame should be bankruptcy and his supposed desire to get spanked by Forbes magazines with his face on them is president.
Politics is about the science of trade-offs—not capitulation and the art of surrendering before the battle has even begun.
Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party is a Democratic Party of the upper middle class. That’s not to say that upper middle class folks should not be an important part of the Democratic coalition, but both mathematically (there are far more middle class and poor voters than upper middle and upper class voters) and morally, they should not be the central focus of the Party of the Little Guy. I grew up upper middle class and attended a prep school, I can promise you, we didn’t need the government helping us out when I was a kid. Now that I am an adult living on a journalism salary, I am much more acutely aware of the struggles non-upper middle class folks deal with. Policy should always begin with a vision from the ground-up—especially in an economic system explicitly designed to let people slip through the cracks so long as they sustain a certain amount of private profit to keep the GDP growing.
But one look at the last thirty years of Democratic policymaking (Barack Obama’s ACA and a few other of his domestic policies excepted) proves that the party is mainly focused on America’s professional class—Wall Street especially. The West Wing tells the professional class that they are the true rulers of America, and that democracy is best served by the collective brainpower of a handful of (white) Ivy League grads huddled together in a room. It makes complete and total sense that those with the most money are the most likely to like The West Wing, because who doesn’t like being told that they’re right about everything all the time?
The problem is that we tried the politics of The West Wing and it lost to Trump. Pete Buttigieg is right, the 2016 election proved this 1990s electoral strategy to be wholly inadequate for the moment at hand, and this is reflective of an outdated mindset that does not understand that President Donald J. Trump is a symptom of our larger structural problems. Plus, Hillary and the Democrats did sell “America is already great” schwag, so I’m not sure what the noise is all about other than a hit dog hollering.
America is not already great—we literally wrote slavery into our constitution (Article I Section 2 Clause 3). It’s not hyperbole to say that our ultimate survival hinges on correcting the mistakes all of liberalism made in the last election. There’s no shame in liking The West Wing—it’s a good TV show (Sorkin’s Newsroom, on the other hand…). Just please keep its bipartisan Democratic politics in the fictional universe where they belong. There’s real work to be done.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.