Unlike many of my fellow travelers in political discourse, I did not grow up with The West Wing. My salad days were spent focused on sports rather than politics. Besides, growing up in a conservative household in a conservative environment, I may have turned my nose up at The West Wing anyway. But having been assured for years by all manner of people that I would love it, and also to combat post-inauguration despair, I finally undertook the deep dive into the Bartlet White House.
Needless to say, all manner of people were correct—I now love The West Wing and may or may not have spent time recently scanning internet websites for Swag.
The show itself is fabulous—and the acting is superlative and it won the Emmy for best drama four years in a row. But the more than the pure spectacle, I find The West Wing compelling as a musing on what politics could look like. And I am not referring to the show’s liberalism, though Lord knows I would like more of that as well. The optimism which infuses the show’s energetic debates and policy discussions is a life raft for those of us who still believe in public sector.
Communications Director Toby Ziegler address this point in the first season. While writing the State of the Union, he takes exception with the decision to include the line, “the era of big government is over.”
I know we can score points [by proclaiming the end of big government]… But we’re here now, and tomorrow night we do an immense thing; we have to say what we feel, that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. An instrument of good.
It’s almost unbelievable today, but there was a time in this country when people trusted their government. In 1964, seventy-sevenf percent of people said they could trust the government to do the right thing all or most of time. This has fallen over time, but as late as 1990, over forty percent trusted the government. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, that figure is nineteen percent. What has happened? Obviously scandals have played a role—Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal both corresponded with drops in public trust. Unpopular wars—Vietnam and Iraq—have been a factor. But there is also a larger trend, visible not only here but across the world, of an erosion of trust in institutions.
As an aspiring contributor to some of these institutions, I find this trend disquieting, particularly because I have yet to see a viable alternative presented. The private market is not the answer—no matter how free a market is, people will always fall through the cracks when money is the ultimate objective. Governments are imperfect, and often deeply flawed. But at their best, the public sector has the will and the capacity and the resources to do not just what is profitable, but what is right.
Small government was become a watchword in politics—candidates who fail to acknowledge that government is bloated are dismissed out-of-hand as members of the leftist fringe. But fourteen point three percent of Americans are impoverished, a number which undersells the true number of citizens who struggle to make ends meet. One in three black men will go to prison in their lifetime, and a half-million Americans go to sleep every night without a roof over their head, one-quarter of them children. Immigrants and refugees are spit at and turned away for having the courage to cross oceans and borders in search of a new home. Millions of Americans still have no health care. If you want to tell me that government resources are misallocated, I will have that discussion. But you cannot look at the homeless encampments sprawled all over many major cities and tell me that social safety nets are too big or too generous.
Much is also made of The West Wing’s emphasis on intelligence above all else, and indeed Aaron Sorkin goes out of his way to highlight how well-qualified the staff is to run a government. Exasperating? Sometimes. But also reasonable. Running the government, it turns out, is hard. Toby has something to say on this matter as well:
Something happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.
While we digest the prescience of this line, please go on a journey with me to think of any other profession on earth in which lack of experience or credentials is a benefit. I would suggest you pack a lunch and bring a change of clothes.
Somehow, and flying in the face of common sense, unsuitability for the job being sought has become the primary currency of successful modern political candidates. Donald Trump is the most recent example of this phenomenon, but he is far from the only one. Indeed, his credentials in this regard are at least (il)legitimate: hearing seven-term incumbent Congressman and Chairman of House Republican Committee Jed Hensarling hold forth on keeping Washington accountable makes me identify with Mugatu. The consequences of this incompetence-based election strategy become clearer with each passing day. Forty-six point one percent of us made the bed—now we all have to lie in it.
There is no shortage of internet hot take artists who have taken to their publication or blog to sanctimoniously proclaim the unreality of the world which The West Wing inhabits. Thinking their cynicism makes them wise, they decry the show as elitist, out of touch, and to quote one piece, “an elaborate fantasia founded upon the shibboleths that sustain Beltway liberalism and the milieu that produced them.”
Leaving aside the irony of critiquing something as elitist while using Italian, Hebrew, and French all in the same sentence, this argument misses the point. At its core, The West Wing wants to show us an image of a world in which Important Decisions are made by intelligent, hard-working people who took jobs in public service because they want to make the country and world a little bit easier to live in. That is not too much to strive for.