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Politics and the West Wing

July 14, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
Politics and the West Wing

I feel that every CMCer should like The West Wing. It’s got politics, awkward romances, and pithy dialogue. What’s not to love? Yet the show’s wittiness and zest for forward momentum obscures a hard fact: no one ever really says anything.(1)Of course,  I don’t mean that given proper critical analysis, the characters aren’t really talking or something stupid like that. I mean that personal anecdotes and rhetoric really are the only methods of persuasion in policy debates on the show.  And that counts for nothing. You can throw in all the statistics and eloquent ad misericordiam assaults you want, but the injunctive “should” requires more. That said, The West Wing really does have the winning formula for left-of-center policy arguments.  It goes something like this:

There exists some heart-wrenching social problem; ergo we should help. Now recognize that the government can “help;” clearly therefore it should.

All in all, it’s a nifty little syllogism. I guess in fairness it’s easy to be swayed by such hot air; I’m as big a fan of linguistic niftiness as the next man. But then you realize that the argument basically comes down to something like, “Don’t you care about children?” Meaningless but powerful. I mean, how are you supposed to respond to that? “No, of course not. Incidentally, I’m also against motherhood and apple pie.”

I’m reminded of Sam Seaborn’s efforts to get money for a supercollider at the request of his cancer ridden former physics professor, Professor Millborne. They need to convince an influential senator who’s holding it up in subcommittee. He’s skeptical because pure scientific research has no real constituency or tangible benefit and thus no political value. He asks how this thing will help Bartlett get reelected. Professor Millborne goes into a long spiel about the scientific achievements that came about indirectly (the x-ray, penicillin, etc.) Then Sam translates: “Discovery. That’s what the thing is used for.” Feel the fucking wonder. The senator says fine, but it’s because of Sam’s threat of anonymous holds on his pork projects. And so we’re reminded how politics actually gets done.

I can’t help but sympathize with the sentiment of Sam’s old Prof: that despite Sam’s protestations to the contrary, he didn’t get physics. These type of people think they’re conversing in rigorous discourse, but quite simply, they’re not. I’m a fan of discovery too, but why should the government be funding it? The point is not that they’re wrong necessarily, but the merits of question of why the government should fund advanced scientific research just lingers in the background like a creepy townie at TNC.

These type of questions are simply unanswered in The West Wing. Think of the absolute apotheosis of West Wing ideology: Bartlett’s cathartic moment in "Two Cathedrals." He lists off a bunch of statistics highlighting the failure of basic egalitarian ideals like equality of opportunity in America and gives us a few policy proposals as solution.

Of course, it’s expected that no one talk about underlying justifications; the show’s about politics. Still, it’s annoying. But what really pisses me off is that these policy prescriptions they argue for are treated as if they have the weight of That-Which-Should-Be-Done. You throw all of these together and the resulting space is “The Answer.” Of course there's no coherent explanation of how these all fit together or why together the policies should be enacted; trite liberal parables are more than sufficient. They’re not just desecrating the ground of political theory; they’re claiming to build its monument.

Sadly, the same thread weaves its way into our cherished CMC. Ask any student about their politics. Chances are they’ll give you a short list of policies they support; probe further and you might even get an interesting explication of its impact (Hey-- that’s what the nation's best and brightest gets you). “We need to do X, Y, and Z. If only we did X, Y, and Z…” Fuck X, Y, and Z—both those offered by the left and the right. Government is but a structure within the system of interactions we call society; if the political is going to take itself seriously, then it needs to talk about what this structure should look like and how we should go about designing it. Right now we’re just drawing piles of pretty pillars and calling it architecture.


(1) I should add—and not due to not-so-subtle threats from Forum editors—that The West Wing is a beastly show. I am merely lamenting its exclusive focus on politics (a damn good focus btw) to the exclusion of policy.

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