A few years ago, Josh Lyman spoke at Harvard to a packed room of starstruck student politicos. It wasn’t the real Josh Lyman, of course, because he isn’t real: he was the fictional Deputy Chief of Staff played by Bradley Whitford on the Aaron Sorkin television drama, The West Wing. It wasn’t Bradley Whitford either, though his visit to Harvard’s Institute of Politics a few years later would also pack the house. Rather, the speaker was Jim Messina, who was at the time the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Obama administration’s real West Wing. It didn’t make much difference which one of the three – Lyman, Whitford or Messina – was in front of us in the room that day, because, to many of my fellow young liberals, dreams of being in The West Wing and in the West Wing have blended together.
It’s hard to exaggerate the role The West Wing has played in the political education of my generation’s aspiring Beltway insiders. Claire Handscombe, a graduate student who moved to Washington to be closer to The West Wing, paints the picture in her recent op-ed on being a West Wingnut:
“Couples have walked down the aisle to the show’s theme music. An iPhone app, pets and even children have been named after the characters. Some fans say that the show has helped them crawl out of depression or that it’s deepened friendships among those who’ve watched it together. Others say it has renewed their political idealism, made them want to debate rather than shout at people with different views or showed them that politics is worth engaging with.”
In “West Wing Babies,” Vanity Fair’s Juli Weiner shares the story of how, upon hearing Obama’s famed 2008 race speech, the campaign’s 20-something chief blogger remarked, “it felt sort of like The West Wing.” One Roll Call reporter told Weiner that she used to have “West Wing therapy nights” in college, watching old episodes and wishing “Aaron Sorkin could script [her] life.” Vox’s Matt Yglesias recalled how he and his college friends had plotted their “proposed domination of the capital in explicitly West Wing terms: Who was more like [fictional White House Communications Director] Toby [Ziegler]? Who was more like Josh?”
My own college and post-college experience corroborates Weiner’s observation that The West Wing is to Millennials and Beltway politics what All the President’s Men was to Baby Boomers and journalism: I witnessed friend after friend be baptized into national politics with a binge-watch of the show’s seven seasons; on the night of Obama’s election, I had that exact same conversation that Yglesias had described (“In 2024, that’ll be us on election night,” “You’ll be Josh and I’ll be Toby”); and literally dozens of my friends, myself included, have been caught wistfully saying “If only [The West Wing’s fictional President] Jed Bartlet was President!” Indeed, Washington’s Obama generation might be more aptly named the Bartlet generation.
About meeting Bradley Whitford, Hanscombe wrote: “true, he is not Josh Lyman, but I knew that already. I didn’t want him to be fictional. I wanted him to be real.” The day actual Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina came to Harvard, my fellow students and I, in a way, felt the inverse: “true, he is not Josh Lyman, but we knew that already. We didn’t want him to be real. We wanted him to be fictional.” But Messina that day was all too real and, when I forced myself to finally discern the difference between Sorkin’s fantasies and the grim consequences of 21st Century insider politics, I began to see how The West Wing had miseducated my political generation.
Though I didn’t write down Messina’s exact quotes and the talk was not filmed, I distinctly remember various lines from that day, for the event was one of the most revelatory moments of my college education. Appropriately, Messina started his talk with “Hi, I’m Jim Messina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff… the position once held by Josh Lyman.”
Amidst the raucous applause, he segued into commenting on a Keystone XL Pipeline protest that had greeted him as he walked in: “You know, I used to be a campus protester like those folks outside and then one day, when I was older, people started protesting me!”
Our real-life Lyman let out a huge and-that’s-the-way-the-world-
During the Q&A afterwards, one of the Pipeline protesters asked Messina pointedly: “If you’re going to make fun of our protest, what do you recommend we should do instead if we have a message we want to send to the president?” Messina responded, “Become Deputy Chief of Staff.”
As the laughs died down, Messina elaborated, describing how, “it’s really incredible to see democracy up close and find that some piece of legislation that I had worked on become enacted into law.”
Shocked at his dismissal of an earnest young citizen, I followed her question up with another critical question:
“In 2008, the campaign told us that ‘we were the ones we had been waiting for’ – that this would be a different, more participatory administration – but as soon as the election was won, you shut down the entire grassroots organization. Now, all of your emails to us only ask for our money and votes. Aren’t we more than money and votes to you?”
Messina, caught off guard, rambled on a bit about the technical details of the allegedly-grassroots “Organizing for America” arm of the administration, eventually admitted to having not pursued a bottom-up approach during the first term, and concluded by saying again that we should come out to New Hampshire and knock on doors for the president during the re-election campaign. And with that, Messina – one of the few men to actually live the West Wing dream about which so many in my generation have fantasized – showed his true colors, a revealing answer even a Sorkinesque inspirational soundtrack could not have glossed over.
What had initially bothered me during my run-in with reality’s Josh Lyman was the fact that his politics was almost completely devoid of vision. Sure, there were poll-tested catchphrases about “moving our country forward” or, “preserving middle class values,” as well as laugh lines about the antics of Republicans in Congress, but one would be hard-pressed to find anything said that day resembling a thoughtful idea about where our nation has been, where it is today, and where it should be going. Rather, he gave his fellow politicos what we wanted: juicy details about the internal mechanics of wielding power.
Inside-the-Beltway wheeling and dealing is the definition of democracy to people like Messina. When he referred to his own ability, as Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, to influence legislation as an example of what “democracy” is, he must have forgotten that the ability of the king’s court to influence legislation is a characteristic of both democracies and dictatorships. And what is to be done about the teeming millions outside of the king’s court? Messina’s plan: ignore them, until you need their money, their time and their votes every four years.
As I rewatched The West Wing after meeting Messina, the show was different for me. It became clear to me that the show suffers from the same problems that Messina does. Despite racking up dozens of rhetorical takedowns of fictional conservatives, countless hours of eloquent explanations of turn-of-the-21st century minimalist Democratic Party policies, and neverending historic anecdotes quoted perfectly by the encyclopedic staff, the Bartlet administration rarely lays out nor consistently advances a national vision beyond Clinton-like marginal policies which they only occasionally enacted. As Ian Millhiser points out, President Bartlet, relative to his sweeping liberal rhetoric,“was a mediocre president”:
“The Bartlet Administration had few bold ideas. What was the Bartlet plan to ensure universal access to health care? Or the Bartlet plan to combat global warming? What did President Bartlet do to close the education gap between poor and rich children? Or to ensure that every child who does succeed in high school will be able to pay for college?”
“Ultimately,” Millhiser concludes, “his presidency advances a very small kind of liberalism that appeals mostly to people who’ve never worried if they could pay their medical bills or if their children can afford college.”
Many readers here, weary of grand national plans, might welcome a visionless president — one devoted to devolving power away from the whims of their own national vision and towards the American people broadly. But The West Wing did not provide this alternative either, rather offering up the worst of both worlds: visionless centralizers. The idea of engaging with the American people beyond the Beltway was so foreign to the politics of The West Wing that the writers were able to shake up Season 4 simply by forcing the main characters to spend a single, maudlin 20-hour period with native Iowans. Of course, when election time came on the show, you might glimpse normal people again – being asked to vote – but as soon as it was over, the characters on The West Wing went back to mostly ignoring the protesters, innovators, mayors, local businesses, social reformers, neighborhood curmudgeons, pastors, volunteers, and grandmothers the make America work.
When asked why they love The West Wing, most people point to the show’s idealism. But, if my fellow young politicos and I had to be honest with ourselves, I think we would say we mostly loved the show because it displayed characters similar to ourselves winning: winning elections, winning arguments, winning the job hunt, winning duels of wits, and winning debates. Most of we West Wingnuts – myself included – were nerds back in our school days, incapable or uninterested in the type of winning that playing (or even watching) sports brings. The West Wing showed us a game that we could play and win at: I can memorize facts, I can make snarky comments, I can win debates… and all the while I can feel good about myself because I am performing a ‘public service.’ While most of today’s nerd-empowering media wisely challenges us to stop caring about winning in the first place, The West Wing shined a path towards a more enjoyable option: who needs the high road when you have what it takes to be a winner in Washington?
“It’s just a TV show,” a fellow West Wing fan might retort, “and I’d take a smart show that inspires a political generation over the Kardashians any day.”
True, Sorkin needed to limit the scope of the show for the sake of drama. True, many West Wing Millennials, myself included, have the show partially to thank for inspiring us to pursue politics by helping add some sparkle to the dry, yet necessary vocation that Max Weber lamented as the “slow boring of hard boards.” Indeed, we could forgive the problems with The West Wing if they were not some of the major problems with politics today.
But they are. Like the characters on The West Wing, most American politicians today lack vision regarding how to address the foundational public problems of our time. Those who attempt to speak and act on broader, programmatic visions – the Ron Pauls, Ralph Naders, Gar Alperovitzes, and Porchers of the world – are marginalized, while those who have mastered the art of the witty quip or eloquent technical explanation of minimalist party policy are invited on primetime cable news.
The act of “engaging” with national politics has come to resemble more and more the act of watching The West Wing, as political media – from MSNBC to POLITICO – focuses in on the internal dramas of the Beltway kings’ courts. After you have watched all the episodes where Josh Lyman wheels and deals his way to another win, you can turn on the real news and watch talking heads discuss how Mitch McConnell’s or Valerie Jarrett’s next move might give their team a win, too. It’s no surprise that political statistician Nate Silver joined ESPN last year: his meteoric rise over the past elections was the final keystone in the complete ESPNification – with its wins and losses, points and scorecards – of American political journalism.
Viewing hundreds of millions of Americans who are not Washington insiders as useful only for votes and campaign donations is not an idiosyncrasy of Jim Messina and his fictional counterparts on The West Wing— it’s endemic to Beltway politicos. As Theda Skocpol pointed out in her wonderful book Democracy Diminished, we have moved from a “membership democracy” to a “management democracy” in the past century. A once-thriving national network of participatory federated societies – which involved routine local activities in small town chapters which cascaded bottom-up into member-driven state conventions and influential national offices – gave way to a politics where we send our checks in to D.C. managers, who engage in democracy for us. The West Wing will be a perfect historical artifact of this age of political management.
The West Wing was, in a way, a playing out of a counterfactual in the mind of all Bush-era Democrats (again, myself included): What if, instead of the Bush administration, an eloquent, professorial president with an Ivy League staff ran the country? The implicit answer to this question was, of course: all would be well!
With Obama’s election, we could actually test the counterfactual. The Bartlet-Obama connection was even made explicit at various times throughout the Obama campaign and presidency. In 2008 and 2012, Maureen Dowd ceded her column to – I am not making this up – Josiah Bartlet (as penned by Aaron Sorkin) to implicitly endorse Obama’s campaigns. The White House even declared last January 29th “Big Block of Cheese Day” as a tribute to a similar event held on an episode of The West Wing.
The result of the test: all was not well. Whatever you believe about the success of the Obama presidency, the panacea many thought would come from a Bartlet-like president never materialized: Washington remains broken, the American people remain disempowered, and structural problems enfeebling our nation grow larger every day.
Like the fictional Bartlet administration, the Obama administration’s eloquence and smarts is betrayed by its lack of clear and consistent vision and integrity. Take Jim Messina himself as an example. The Obama team assuredly knew, before hiring him, that he had released what has been called “one of the most homophobic ads of modern political times” while managing Senator Max Baucus’ 2002 Senate campaign. They knew he kept an “‘enemies’ list on an Excel spreadsheet.”
During the administration, they encouraged him to crony corporatize health care reform, as well as execute the tactics that would gut the transformative, participatory legacy of the 2008 campaign in favor of, as The Nation reports, an administrative strategy “committed to working the system inside Washington rather than changing it.” It should have come as no surprise that Messina cashed in on his connections after his term of service, accepting consulting windfalls with little regard for his clients’ ideological positions. Indeed, the real-life Josh Lyman is just as much of a winner as his fictional counterpart, but the stark reality of how these ‘wins’ play out is not as inspiring as Sorkin would have scripted.
Despite candidate Obama’s call for citizens to “be the change we have been waiting for” – to not “wait for some other person … some other time” – political engagement, under President Obama’s watch, has become evermore defined as spectatorship of the interpersonal drama of Washington insiders. Our citizenry’s neverending psychoanalysis of the president marches on, as some citizens continue to waste countless hours being haunted by the spectre of a radical Muslim Kenyan, while other citizens waste countless hours defending the president from such attacks, all while our equal and opposite obsession with the president – an obsession we incorrectly refer to as “following politics” – distracts us from being good neighbors and visionary reformers in our communities and specific issue areas — realms where we could, as extraordinary ordinary citizens, make a serious difference. In fact, many members of the administration and the administration’s opposition fan the flames of the obsessive spectatorship, for an angry, confused, locally-disengaged, centrally-focused populace is better converted into donations and votes come election time than a strong, clear-headed, locally-engaged citizenry.
It’s one thing that the West Wing theory of politics – the thought that the replacement of one president with another would solve our great public problems – failed the test. It’s a worse thing that my generation of politically-minded young people failed to see through this simplistic view of political change. Unfortunately, we had been miseducated by the very show that had brought so many of us here in the first place.
What would a better political education look like?
First, it would de-emphasize the role that political wheeling and dealing, snarky debate, encyclopedic literacy of formal political processes, and even inspirational speeches – skills which our political establishment has in excess – play in political change and emphasize the role that community-mindedness and visionary reform – scarce resources inside the Beltway – play in it.
Second, it would draw focus away from the internal dramas of Washington insiders and towards the politics that occurs outside of the halls of national power: the state initiatives, the small-town ideas, the business innovations, the community projects, and the local protests happening in neighborhoods across America. If you insist on focusing on Washington, why not feature the public interest groups who work tirelessly everyday not to maintain their administration’s power but rather to push for actual game-changing reforms?
Finally, it would see democracy as more than national elections and the choices of the national administrations they produce. Consequently, it would see citizens as more than dollars and votes, pushing the dial back towards a membership democracy from our management democracy. It would equip community innovators to create institutions that discourage the practice of centrally-minded, furious, spectatorial politics and encourage the practice of community-minded, routine, empowered politics.
Two shows point in this new direction. From the progressive tradition, David Simon’s The Wire is the anti-West Wing: there’s no eloquent speeches, there’s hardly any moment resembling debate, and any temporary insularity is immediately broken by the chaotic and sprawling reality of the modern city. Viewers learn about the other end of the policy digestion system: the practical institutions that administer public laws and programs. Nobody ‘wins,’ because ‘the game’ of inner-city Baltimore isn’t winnable. Yet, we have a lot to learn from some of players’ temporary civic victories, such as Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin’s progressive experiment to test the effects of drug legalization in one area of his Western District. Such tiny, progressive community innovations, by people working where the rubber hits the road in urban life, have snowballed into some of our greatest national achievements but are hardly mentioned on shows like The West Wing.
From the conservative tradition, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights is also a stark contrast to The West Wing, but for different reasons. Whereas The West Wing’s characters endlessly one-up each other to prove their superior intelligence, the neighbors of FNL’s Dillon, Texas have little respect for Gilbert and Sullivan references and Ivy League degrees. Rather, characters proved their worth by how much they could give back to their community: by how big a fundraiser they could throw, by how many boys they could shepherd into manhood, by how many athletic booster meetings they could attend, by how long they could consistently preserve local values and traditions. Despite being a show about literally winning football games, its deeper message betrayed its surface-level competitive spirit: when a character valued being right and winning interpersonal skirmishes – as every West Wing character does almost every episode – they often faltered, whereas characters who valued being good and preserving interpersonal ties found success. Friday Night Lights taught what is perhaps the most important – and the most overlooked by West Wing-style politics – principle of making political change: before we are activists, we are neighbors; before we can change a community, we must be a member of it.
I don’t mean to look back in anger at the show that provided a political education to so many of us. It’s alright that The West Wing brought us here. Our generation’s political life will have many chapters. But we have, at worst, been miseducated by it and, at best, outgrown it. To reach the next chapter of our political life, we must leave the politics of Josh Lyman behind.
Pete Davis is a civic reformer hailing from Falls Church, Virginia. He is the co-founder of CommonPlace, a web platform for local community engagement, as well as a former labor and poverty advisor with Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law. He is currently the co-director of StrongReturns.org, an initiative working to make prison reform the Millennial generation’s issue in the 2016 elections. You can email Pete at PeteDavis1989@gmail.com.