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.