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June 27, 2006

The Partisan Case Against The West Wing

The West Wing is over. Thank god. That, at least, is the thesis of my article in the July/August issue of The American Prospect, which argues that the show chronicled and reinforced a particularly pathetic moment in the liberal perspective. It's a show, too, that despite enjoying (I would guess) widespread acclaim in the blogosphere, was totally antithetical to the sort of pugilistic, partisan politics we generate. Anyway, I'm pretty happy with the piece, and I encourage you folks to read it.

Update: Over at Cato, Gene Healy argues that the show was too wide-eyed and naive towards politics in general. "It managed — in 21st century America — to be markedly less cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." True enough. Of course, being a Democrat with an affection for politics, I liked its deification of civil service, particularly in an era when politics -- which should be an honorable profession -- is so maligned. The less respect the public holds for the political sphere, the worse folks it'll attract, and the more cyclical its descent will become.

So it's fine, in my eyes, to play make believe with politics, but you can't pretend that the whole sector is an enlightened pillow fight. Instead, you have to stick to a core group of unrealistic characters wandering through, and interacting with, a fairly realistic political realm. The West Wing's spread its warm and fuzzies too wide -- it would have been better off setting its characters to war against the political establishment rather than pretending that the whole place was composed of similarly virtuous stuff. Or, to put it another way, read my piece.

June 27, 2006 | Permalink


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Geez dude, it was entertainment. You need to keep these things in perspective.

Posted by: mrgumby2u | Jun 27, 2006 5:49:16 PM

I really don't like the "it's just entertainment" argument. it's foolish and emasculating.

pop culture---TV included---always reflects and reinforces current political attitudes. and ezra makes a good case that the west wing reinforced the notion, in and outside the party, that the dem's were a bunch of pussies. and that surely comports w/ a common gripe about dem leadership: that until recently, they were a bunch of pussies.

the last thing the party needs is that image further woven into public perception. besides, I thought the show sucked. for the reasons ezra mentioned.

but there are few things scarier than a bio-mechanically enhanced oliver north.

Posted by: mencken | Jun 27, 2006 6:03:05 PM

It was a good drama regardless of whether you thought the politics was interesting. God, you people need to get out more.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 6:03:41 PM


no, what makes us looking like a bunch of pussies are overly analytical comments about tv shows. It was a tee-vee show. tee-vee.



Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 6:06:09 PM

So "entertainment" is now off-limits for analytical criticism. Good to know!

Btw: folks realize you can love a show and own the dvds and still find it intellectually problematic, right?

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 27, 2006 6:08:35 PM

Analysis of TV shows? What'll people be doing next - studying literature?

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 27, 2006 6:09:18 PM

The first and fourth comments make a very good point that no work of art has anything at all to tell us about the real world, and considering the real world implications of such will therefore logically always be a waste of time.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Jun 27, 2006 6:17:38 PM

I, hereby, offer this amendment to HRC's flag burning triangulation: Hence forth political junkies shall not discuss tee-vee shows. With the following signing statement by GWB, the deciderer: you don't have the proper equipment. You are going on and on about something that doesn't matter because its a teeee-veee show. If you don't think its entertaining- fine. But, Seriously, lighten up. This like Bill Cosby hating on All in the Family cause some white folks didn't get it was a parody of them.

yours forever,


Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 6:20:58 PM

I have pretty much the same problem Ezra does with the West Wing. I think the camel's back broke for me, though, when they did the episode where two Supreme Court justices keel over in one week and Bartlett appoints one liberal and one conservative in a sort of Friedmanian festival of gratuitous compromise. The show wasn't a liberal fantasy; it was the Care Bears recast in the Oval Office.

Beyond that, though, I also agree with Gene Healy. The show's default attitude towards politics - and the presidency in particular - is one of unabashed naivete, which most certainly is not a good thing to foster in American life. One of the greatest flaws in American politics is that we're not nearly skeptical enough of our leaders, that we're willing to see reelection of incumbents as the default instead of firing them for their incompetence and corruption, that most of us see the president as the whole world's commander-in-chief instead of as the whole country's public servant. The West Wing reveled in the power and ceremony of the executive branch, in the kind of stateliness and pageantry that built up George Bush's image over his first four years in office. For the most part I'd say the show was mostly harmless - it was a symptom, not a cause, but it wasn't a symptom of anything good.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 27, 2006 6:31:32 PM


seriously, it's okay to go outside. there are no bands of roaming elves that will beat you up. my office mate and I just read your statement while humming the star spangled banner. It made our afternoon- thx- you got our vote.



Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 6:38:17 PM

Sorry, it just isn't naive or intellectually problematic to have an idealized version of the world portrayed on television. Much like it isn't intellectually problematic or naive to, say, have the good guys win in a movie without having to worry that it wasn't completely realistic to have "good guys" without some amount of moral ambiguity involved. Or the fact that Kennedy's inagural speech was intellectually problematic or naive today, because in the "real world" people don't ask what they can really do for their country and look out for themselves.

That said, I do wish a brilliant satire skewering American politics -- akin to Yes, Prime Minister or Yes, Minister -- appear on American television. There's a place for both idealism and cynicism.

Posted by: Chris R | Jun 27, 2006 6:48:53 PM

now chris has said something interesting- I agree a satire would be funny and probably entertaining- depending on how its done

Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 6:57:03 PM

First, this "it's only a tv show" thing is stupid, stupid, stupid. STUPID. Pop culture is perhaps the most direct and unmediated expression of the current predilections, desires, fantasies, and fears of the citizenry. It's a gold mine for analysis. Saying that it's "just entertainment" and thus unworthy of serious attention is the kind of retarded anti-intellectualism that I'd prefer to leave to the other side.

Sorry, but that shit irritates me.

Now, as to the show: I loved it. I really did. And I think the last two seasons were nearly as good as the first two (there was really only one season that was outright awful -- remember John Goodman as the mean Republican?).

But I'm ambivalent about the matter at hand. You're right, Ezra, and Gene's right too. It was a fantasy-land where everyone, no matter their differences, was at heart committed to the country's best interests. Which is crap.

But did the show serve to anesthetize people? To make them think that politics really was that way? Or did it serve to stoke their idealism and make them more likely to demand that politics be more that way?

I'm not sure. It's difficult for political obsessives like us to appreciate the depth of ignorance in the American public about politics. Who knows what message was getting through.

Posted by: Realish | Jun 27, 2006 7:00:33 PM

Akaison, you seem to spend a lot of time insisting that all of this is meaningless for someone who claims to think all of this is meaningless.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 27, 2006 7:12:55 PM

that was a beautifully written piece. you are a fine writer.
and for one to say, "it is just a television show, or just a book, or just entertainment, or just a film"...impact, learning and inspiration can lift our thoughts from even the most mundane experience...
...sitcoms of the fifties, reflected and even shaped our perceptions and fantasies of how things "should be", and after all, they were just simple television shows in black and white..advertisements that last just a handful of seconds can affect our perceptions of personal success and well being...determine what foods we eat and subtly mold a world-view, for better or worse...a short novel or a minute in front of a work of art can be life-changing.
....there is a thin membrane between everything...inspiration and reflection can come from almost anywhere.
....thank you for the beautiful and thoughtful review. there is a real sincerity that shines in your writing.
write on!!!!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jun 27, 2006 7:17:12 PM

Never watched an entire episode. Got halfway thru one and turned it off. TV rots the brain, ya know. Gamma rays.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 27, 2006 7:31:09 PM

Well Ill chime in that it was a tv show, but in a different way. It is entertainment, and as such has other forces pulling at it in order to satisfy its total audience, not just the full-time blog pundits. Those who want total realism, who want to see the real inner workings of government laid bare really need to be an intern in washington and install a 24/7 cspan feed.

For those of us who want a bit more then reality, perhaps even inspiration there are shows like WW. WW wasnt just about showing politics out in the open. There was obviously a bit of idealism, giving people a bit of hope that maybe a political hero could exist.

The opposition wasnt always freindly, and the good guys came to the game prepared, even though they didnt always win. Those are aspects of the show that lend hope to the idea that our country hasnt descended totally and permanently into character assasination and spin attempts.

Much of the disappointment in Kerry came about in overinflated expectation. For months he was touted as the ultimate debater. Almost (and this is a quote from the news) akin to cicero in his ability to war with words. Then he went to the debate and played softball, not even going for the jugular when an open opportunity was presented.

WW presented snippets of reality at a time. Little enough to keep it light for a general audience, but still enough to keep even the hard core political junky interested, if not exstatic. It showed bribery, attempts to undermine character by both sides, corruption, scandal and all that. But didnt infuse every last minute with those.

It would have been interesting to see a new set of writers come into the show and see vinick's challenges and triumphs. The writers work would have to be completely authentic for that to work at all, and this I think in the end is another thing that doomed the republican campain in the show.

Posted by: david b | Jun 27, 2006 7:33:42 PM

This was the world of The West Wing, a realm of comity, decency, respectable opponents, and honorable intellectual warfare.

Which, along with the well-developed characters, was why I loved it so. At least until Sorkin left.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jun 27, 2006 7:42:06 PM

Much of the disappointment in Kerry came about in overinflated expectation. For months he was touted as the ultimate debater. Almost (and this is a quote from the news) akin to cicero in his ability to war with words. Then he went to the debate and played softball, not even going for the jugular when an open opportunity was presented.

Did we watch the same debates? Kerry's camp deliberately played down his debating skills, insisting over and over again that Bush was a fierce opponent who'd "never lost a debate" with either Gore or Ann Richards. When the debates finally arrived, Kerry soundly wiped the floor with Bush - so much so that the right blogosphere accused Kerry of having brought notes to the debate.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 27, 2006 7:43:58 PM

Actually, now that I think about it, the character of Vinick -- a godless, pro-choice Republican who actually wins the party's nomination -- was kind of the straw that broke the camel's back, suspension of disbelief wise.

Posted by: David Roberts | Jun 27, 2006 7:53:25 PM

"Those are aspects of the show that lend hope to the idea that our country hasnt descended totally and permanently into character assasination and spin attempts."

"Descended"? Ezra's point is made by his commenters.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 27, 2006 8:07:39 PM

Wow. I'm sorry, but your article was sort of lame. I still have you bookmarked, but the show's "purity" is hardly what I find most problematic --- and the fact that neither you nor any other "democrat" or "progressive" point out what I have in mind is disturbing. What is the point of the West Wing? That there are no PEOPLE in POLITICS. "Politics" is essentially policy wonks arguing with each other about percentage points in a tax bill. And while I expect you to more or less view politics in exactly that fashion, I do not expect, in a "close reading" of the show, to fail to remark on the fact that all of national politics as portrayed on the West Wing happens in the minds of political operatives --- the equivalents of the Paul Begalas and Dick Morrises of the world. For all of the media-as-echo-chamber critiques of liberal blogs, I am surprised West Wing can't be seen as simply all politics as echo-chamber writ large.

On the show the people --- real, living citizens --- exist only in the mind of the policy wanks, and of course in the history speeches of president/granddad. They are never talked to, they never speak, and they are only seen out in the audience, being lectured at by pols. I expect that sort of denigration of what real people have to offer from republicans, but democrats should at least know well enough to point it out as a flaw.

The problem is not that "liberals believe that, deep down, conservatives don’t really want to fight." The problem is that liberals, like conservatives, believe that the people outside of washington who do most of the living and dying in this country don't have shit to say or think.

Posted by: sparacando | Jun 27, 2006 8:26:28 PM


Thank you for a really excellent post.
I have nothing to add because you sum up a lot of my problem with what I feel is a certain intellectual (oh, but we know what the real world is) snobbishness to all of this. It's a show. Take it for what it is. People don't want to go watch a show and always be lecture to. Sometimes it works- ie, a Syrianna, or a Crash, but that doesn't mean it has to always work that way. There is a diversity of programming out there right now when one looks at all the networks, cable programming and movies out there. To complain that one show didn't do the end all be all is just not only not realistic, it doesn't respect that there are a lot of different types of audiences out there.

Posted by: akaison | Jun 27, 2006 8:31:49 PM

My limited view of West Wing is that it projected a sort of fuzzy (or fussy?) Clintonianism, which after Bush got his 9/11-Iraq bug up his ass, didn't seem to offer enough solice to overcome the lack of gritty, sordid, lying reality that today's Republican/Rovian world lives out.

Now, instead, a show titled "Right Wing" about what BushCo does inside the White House (and the rest of the 'unitary Executive') would be art deployed in the battle against totalitarianism and would win my heart. But the program, to the degree it portrayed actual reality, would surely come off as poorly scripted bad fiction. It would be hard to show the degree of actual evil conducted on a day to day basis in Bush's Black House.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 27, 2006 8:57:28 PM

Geez, all the "it's just a TV show" people sure are spending a lot of time obsessing over other people talking about something that's "just a TV show."

Repeat after me: "This is just a blog. It really doesn't matter."

Posted by: Adam Piontek | Jun 27, 2006 9:42:55 PM

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