Why 'The West Wing' Is a Terrible Guide to American Democracy

It's good TV, but politicians from Burma to Brussels are wrong to believe it will teach them about how to emulate the U.S. system.

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You wouldn't think to learn medicine from House or jurisprudence from Law & Order. But can you learn democratic governance from The West Wing? Some people seem to think so. At a ceremony honoring Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported that politicians in Burma have told her they've been attempting to understand democracy by watching Aaron Sorkin's celebrated show. It's actually not the first time a foreign official has made such a claim: European Union Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton told Newsweek in 2010 that she learned about America and "the mechanics of Washington life" from being "an avid viewer of The West Wing." Hillary Clinton, for her part, said she told one of the Burmese politicians that "I think we can do better than that."

Clinton's comment has provoked some backlash among West Wing faithful. Writing at the New Yorker, Ian Crouch argues at some length that "Clinton may be wrong in overlooking the power of The West Wing as a pedagogical tool." But Clinton -- who has not-insignificant experience in this area -- is absolutely right. While The West Wing may be some of the best American television ever produced, it is not a particularly accurate or insightful guide to the actual workings of American democracy. In fact, the very artistic and narrative choices that make it a superb drama make it a very poor representation of politics.

Rather than depicting how our government actually functions, The West Wing reflects many popular misunderstandings of it. To begin with, by situating itself in the White House and focusing almost exclusively on the individuals who inhabit it, the show inevitably falls prey to the fallacy of personality-driven politics. Thus, in Sorkin's fictional universe, a towering presidential figure -- Josiah Bartlet -- aided by a tireless staff of wunderkinds is able to tackle international and domestic crises through a mix of political dexterity and rhetorical finesse. There are few impasses an eloquent appeal cannot solve, and almost no foreign-policy conundrum for which a clever solution cannot be conceived. Outsiders -- from the American people and their electoral preferences to foreign leaders and their national interests -- play only bit parts in the ensuing drama.

Consider the following examples: In the show's sixth season, the charismatic Bartlet locks himself in a room with the Chinese president and -- despite being hobbled by an attack of multiple sclerosis -- personally secures an unprecedented summit for nuclear talks with North Korea. Now, China and the United States have dramatically different outlooks on everything from human rights to nuclear proliferation, not to mention entirely conflicting systems of governance. The show does not explain how these chasms are bridged. It simply implies that the difficulties of seemingly irreconcilable ideologies and national interests are no match for our protagonist's force of personality.

Earlier that season, the Bartlet Administration brings peace to the Middle East in much the same fashion. Over the span of a couple episodes, President Bartlet bangs some heads together at Camp David, commits American troops to police Palestine, and conveniently solves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As it turns out, the question of the division of Jerusalem can be resolved through some negotiating jujitsu and a personal plea to Israel's prime minister, who puts on a good show about how "my right arm will fall off before I ever sign a document giving up Jerusalem" (a nod to Psalm 137:5) before reneging after the commercial break.

Viewers want a show in which heroes overcome obstacles. They do not want to see a president forced to stay in a failing war by institutional inertia or unable to pass an environmental bill because of industry clout.

This wild overstatement of the ability of charismatic individuals to affect large-scale change in defiance of traditional political constraints is a conceit shared by many popular entries into the governance-as-entertainment genre. To take one example, the climactic scene of Rod Lurie's Oscar-nominated The Contender features the film's chief executive (played by Jeff Bridges) delivering a rousing speech before Congress in which he shames the opposition into confirming his female vice-presidential nominee -- her predecessor having died in office -- in an open floor vote. This is apparently because shaming people into realizing the blindingly self-evident nature of your political predilections has a long history of success in affairs of state.

Of course, as absurd and reductive as these portrayals are, such fudging of reality is entirely understandable in dramatic context. No one wants to watch a show in which the characters are buffeted by implacable outside forces which constrict and often dictate their courses of action. Viewers want a show in which heroes overcome obstacles and triumph over circumstances. They do not want to see a president forced to stay in a failing war by institutional inertia or unable to pass an environmental bill because of industry clout. And few would tune in week after week to watch the American president compromising on principles like gay marriage in the face of extreme Senate opposition, or sitting helplessly by as an oil spill wreaks havoc upon America's coastal shelf.

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Yair Rosenberg is a freelance writer and the editor of the English-language blog of the Israeli national archives. His work on religion, politics, and culture is collected at yairrosenberg.com.

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