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.

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.

Getty Images

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.

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.

The problem is that, contrary to the hopes of screenwriters and viewers everywhere, this is often how democratic politics actually works -- through uninspiring compromise and failure. Politicians, no matter how magnetic or persuasive, are constrained by the views of their constituents and countless other factors beyond their control. (Tellingly, the Council of Economic Advisors is all but absent from The West Wing, even as political scientists have shown that the strength of the economy largely tracks an incumbent president's reelection prospects, unlike their personality or speeches.)

But substituting personality for politics isn't the only thing The West Wing gets wrong. By dramatic necessity, the show reduces the complex bureaucracy of the executive branch into a few key character roles. Thus, Communications Director Toby Ziegler and his deputy Sam Seaborn personally vet Supreme Court nominees, write the State of the Union address, negotiate with congressmen, and deal with representatives of key interest groups -- and that's just in the first few episodes. In the real West Wing, by contrast, these myriad tasks are performed by many different administration officials.

Obviously, it would be unrealistic -- not to mention bad storytelling -- to present all of these individuals and their responsibilities on screen. But the elision of these roles results in a subtle yet crucial flaw in the show'srepresentation of the workings of the federal government. It is precisely because that government is run by a labyrinthine network of bureaucrats -- as opposed to a handful of core players, as in The West Wing -- that it cannot speedily accomplish many of the things asked of it. There are turf wars between offices, communications breakdowns, and weak staff members who retard efficiency. One cannot simply put in a word to Josh Lyman (the show's deputy chief of staff) and expect him and his coterie to quickly put things right.

Building a democracy around The West Wing's version of politics, then, is setting one's self up for disappointment. The show overstates the power of personalities to triumph over fundamental political realities. It exaggerates the import and impact of presidential rhetoric. And it concordantly minimizes the internal and external obstacles even the most well-meaning and capable politicians face when attempting to make policy. Such creative liberties add up to a romanticized portrayal which leads viewers to expect more from their elected officials and government than either can reasonably deliver.

The rise and fall of President Obama in the popular imagination offers a case study in the perils of such magical thinking. If George W. Bush self-identified as the "decider-in-chief," candidate Obama was seen as a "persuader-in-chief" -- a man who through the power of his words and the force of his unique biography would heal partisan divides, ease racial tensions and calm discontent with America in Europe and the Muslim world. As Andrew Sullivan famously put it, Obama's face and backstory would be "the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan." In other words, Barack Obama was the avatar of personality-driven politics -- and voters signed on for four seasons of the show.

Fast-forward to 2012 and disillusionment has set in, not with Obama so much as the naïve portrait of political life and the power of the presidency his candidacy once represented. In 2008, Obama promised a new era of post-partisan politics. In 2012, humbled by congressional gridlock, an ailing economy, and unrest abroad, he repudiated "the thinking that the president is somebody who is all-powerful and can get everything done." Which is to say, what plays well on television doesn't work so well in Washington.

To be fair, you can still learn some useful tidbits about American democracy from watching The West Wing, much as you can pick up facts about various diseases and legal doctrines from medical and law dramas. But just as it would be ill-advised to attempt to apply the lessons of ER to a patient in your local hospital, it's not a particularly good idea to model your country on the political picture painted by The West Wing. We can do better than that.