I loved the old series The West Wing, although some argue that it now seems hokey, dated and, most critically, it’s a show that depicts how a narcissistic Democratic Party establishment sees itself. This is why so many Bernie Sanders people (and Republicans) find the show revolting.
But I think the show has held up well. Which is why I found this Matty Yglesias piece today interesting:
The West Wing’s earnestness is probably the most distinctive thing about the show and why it is liked by a lot of people who work in politics.
Most fictional depictions of D.C. life show it as a super cynical place full of power-hungry schemers who don’t care about anything. This is a convenient device for a certain kind of thriller, but it’s extremely fake. The smart and accurate thing to say is that real-world politics is more “Veep” than “House of Cards,” which is extremely true. But “Veep” is satire, exaggerating for effect and fundamentally also overstating the level of cynicism in Washington.2 One of the guys who consulted for “The West Wing” is Gene Sperling, who worked on the Dukakis campaign in 1988, was an economic advisor to Mario Cuomo, and served as Deputy Director and then Director of the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton. After being out of government for eight years, he came back as a counselor to Tim Geithner at the beginning of Obama’s presidency and then did another three-year stint as NEC director. Now he’s a senior advisor in the White House charged with American Rescue Plan implementation.
Whatever criticisms you may offer of the guy, Gene Sperling is clearly sincerely very committed to his ideas and to the idea that by serving at a high level in government he can nudge public policy in better directions.
And something “The West Wing” deeply gets about politics is that there are a lot of people like that kicking around. Are there kooks and grifters and opportunists and criminals and morons? Sure.
But you genuinely can’t understand key developments in American political history — good ones like the Affordable Care Act or bad ones like the Dobbs decision — without understanding the large and often critical role played by earnest people who sincerely believe in what they are doing. Even a lot of the really bad characters in politics — Paul Ryan, for example — are extremely sincere. And when you look at someone who is both bad and also non-sincere like Donald Trump, you can’t understand Trump’s successes without understanding the sincerity of many of his collaborators. For better or worse, helping Trump beat Clinton seemed like a good way to try to advance the causes of making abortion illegal and taking health insurance away from poor people, and unless you grasp the sincerity with which lots of Republicans believe in those causes, you won’t be able to make sense of how he related to the party’s professionals.
I agree. There are an awful lot of people who are in government for all the right reasons. I know because I ran into them all the time when I was a newspaper editor.
The Republican Party wants all of us to believe that everyone in government is self-interested, because the more they can convince us that government is broken and populated by people with only their own interests at heart, the more they can dismantle government and put Wall Street in control of more facets of our public life and institutions.
Incidentally, you can watch The West Wing on HBO Max (with commercials), and without commercials if you pay on Amazon video and Apple TV.
Below is a scene from the show that captures its brilliance, as President Bartletts tears a new a-hole for a smug, self-satisfied and cruel right-wing radio host in attendance at a White House function.