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The West Wing and American Politics

Some criticize The West Wing for being unrealistic and idealistic. While the series often deviated from perfect realism, its value as an educational resource and aspirational vision are undeniable.


“Say they're smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don't call them worthless. At least don't do it in front of me. The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good. Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots.”

This stirring demonstration of bipartisanship by Ainsley Hayes is just one example of why critics argue that The West Wing is an unrealistic glorification of the US government and American politics. These arguments are nowhere near invalid, but I believe that the education and inspiration The West Wing provided its audience was, and is, far more impactful than the more unrealistic moments. Of course the show isn’t perfect, no television program is, but there are genuine positives that are frequently overlooked in favor of criticizing the content or style.

In a 2018 Vox article, Emily VanDerWerff writes that “The West Wing has come to so thoroughly define the way that many in the center-left have come to think about Washington that it’s had a deleterious effect on their beliefs about how Washington should work.” I think this particular perspective doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the viewers of The West Wing. It’s virtually impossible in the current political climate to be unaware of the tensions and mistrust in our government, yet VanDerWerff seems to think that since these tensions are not nearly as extreme in the show as they are in real life, the public is therefore unaware of their existence. However, I believe the truth is actually the opposite, with most West Wing viewers knowing very well that the show demonstrates different party issues than those we see today but taking away many lessons and positives anyway. Richard Schiff, who played Communications Director Toby Ziegler for all seven seasons, said that he finds it strange when “people call us the ideal White House and not the idealistic White House.” This is clear evidence that even those closest to the show realize that it is not always, or even most of the time, extremely accurate or a perfect example of politics, but they also recognize that it doesn't cancel out the benefits of the idealism displayed in the show.

VanDerWerff elaborates more on the perceived issues with the show, stating “Younger left-leaning voters increasingly don’t believe the Republican Party, as currently constituted, is capable of compromise—and not without reason.” This is a sound point. Left leaning voters of today do have legitimate concerns about the rigidity of the current Republican party and its policies, which resemble only peripherally the Republicans of The West Wing. Critics of the show use these differences as a reason to discredit it, simply because it shows a more hopeful and flexible version of politics than we currently have. This obvious difference between West Wing Republicans and real life ones can be attributed to a variety of reasons, (including the fact that one is fictional and dramatized for television and one isn’t), with one of the most likely being that Sorkin simply couldn’t have predicted how insanely divided the two political parties would be just 20 years after his show premiered. Again, this does not undermine the positives of the show, it simply reminds the audience that, for all its accuracy and impacts, The West Wing is still just a television show that will of course have some unrealistic moments.

Beyond anecdotes, there is also legitimate documented evidence of the positive impact that The West Wing can have. One such example is examined in a study conducted by Wayne Journell and Lisa Brown Buchanan, specifically on the impact of The West Wing as a civics classroom teaching tool. From the results of the study they were able to determine that showing episodes in class and encouraging discussion afterwards created benefits such as “enthusiasm for civics content,” “political thinking,” “authentic context for content,” “allowing for connections to real life events,” and “making connections across the formal curriculum.” It’s true that this is only one case study, but it still provides strong support for the idea that, despite its many flaws, The West Wing has significant potential to make a positive impact.

Many of the the show’s most iconic moments have been set in the context of popular issues, such as gun control and abortion, simply because it makes for great television. However, these instances should not overshadow the moments when the show included less emotionally-charged issues, such as the Census and tax policy, and did so in a way that was still engaging, educational, and inspirational to people from all sorts of backgrounds. Claire Handscombe, a former White House intern, is a prime example of someone who has experienced firsthand the impact The West Wing can have. It was the driving force for her to move to DC for school, shaped her graduate course selection, and eventually led her to a White House internship. Handscombe goes on to support that personal impact with a quote from a Cambridge University interview in which Bradley Whitford, who played Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman, explains “I would get lobbied by lobbyists when I went to Washington… they wanted to get their particular issues on the show, because we could get…21 million people to watch a 46-minute show where you went through, basically, the pros and cons of whether or not the decennial census should be done, you know, by actual polling or computer modeling.” The fact that a political drama was worth the time, effort, and money it takes to lobby is simply more evidence that The West Wing is an incredibly worthwhile show.

People certainly have valid and differing perspectives regarding the realism, or lack thereof, in the show, but political staffers tend to agree that the show straddles the line of authenticity and theatrics quite well. Umpagan Ampikaipkan writes, "The West Wing was always most interesting whenever it strayed from the reality of American politics and veered into the theatrical," which supports the value of episodes like Two Cathedrals, which culminates in the President putting out a cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral, yet it also leaves room for the show to remain grounded in the reality of the White House. Gene Sperling, former Director of the National Economic Council corroborates the authenticity aspect of the show when he answers “ is pretty realistic, except that we are not as funny, don't walk as fast and most of us are not as good looking."

Julia Chaffers of The Daily Princetonian also addresses accusations of unrealistic plots and dialogues in a very different and concise way; “The show was never meant to be a realistic depiction of politics in its time—it premiered at the tail end of the Clinton administration and the bulk of its run was during the Bush years. It was always aspirational.” The West Wing aims to provide inspiration and education, but it still was constrained by its capacity as a television drama, as well as by the fact that it was catering to a public that didn’t want a hyperrealistic documentary of life inside the White House. The position the show is in is unique, even amongst dramas, and it already went above and beyond other programs in terms of educational content. Something else that often gets forgotten in discussions of the show is that it is not a politics class, it's a television drama, and it only has so much leeway since ratings and an audience are always the top priority. Despite these constraints, it has managed to educate, inform, and teach generations of eager viewers. So yes, many decisions were made in the interest of good television and higher ratings over realistic depictions of politics, but that by no means discounts the many moments in which the show does accurately depict issues and educate its audience.

The West Wing has inspired scholarly papers, books, articles, podcasts, and discussion and debate amongst all kinds of people. It has been used in civics classrooms as a teaching tool, viewed by White House interns as motivation and inspiration, used by new White House staff to prepare for the "breakneck" pace that comes with the job, and watched by ordinary citizens who simply want a more hopeful view of government. While there are many valid critiques, The West Wing has nevertheless been an incredibly useful source of inspiration and entertainment for the past two decades, and will hopefully continue in that capacity.

Siena Cooney is a first year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a staff writer at American Agora.

Image courtesy Diego Cambiaso, Creative Commons.

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