Before the days of series like “House of Cards,” “Veep” and “Roadkill,” political dramas looked and felt very different. Just ask anyone who has seen “The West Wing,” a culturally reflective political series that ran from 1999 to 2006, whose trademark was its feel-good, heroic takes regarding the day-to-day struggles of the United States President and his West Wing staffers.
Of course, the show dealt with many of the unsavory issues that come with politics — scandal, threats of war and political dilemmas where there seems to be no right answer — but its present unwatchability stems from how the staffers are treated like the liberal version of the Avengers, romanticized heroes with hearts of gold (which sometimes is taken to unintentionally hilarious extremes, as this tweet points out).
And uhh, when’s the last time you felt that way about politicians?
At least for me, this feeling is completely unrelatable. See, I didn’t grow up with “The West Wing” as much as I grew up with “Veep,” a series with a completely different take on the day-to-day life of politicians. “Veep” uses the lens of political pragmatism, strictly from the perspective of the politician themself. In the show, Vice President Selina Meyer makes decisions based on gaining more power and earning the public’s favor in preparation for the next election cycle, not by righteously fighting for what’s right.
In a recent lecture, my political science professor said something that stuck with me. He remarked that above all else, trust is a key part of democracy, and that in his view, trust in government has diminished, coinciding with the rise of social media. This extends beyond trust in the democratic system, but also to the belief that one’s politicians have their people’s best interests at heart. This kind of trust gives people in authority the power to promote social organization (like mask mandates) effectively. This made sense to me, because if you don’t trust your politicians to work for your interests, why would you listen to them? And in this age of social media where there’s no escaping the 24-hour news cycle, you’re up-to-date on how your politicians are behaving — and it’s not the way “The West Wing” staffers would.
Social media has shown us that even those previously viewed as infallible by the liberal perspective can be subject to ridicule. President Barack Obama was well liked, or at the minimum well respected by his following. Yet, since his presidency, internet culture and the public political sphere has expanded exponentially, making him continually subject to the public’s criticism, notably towards his use of drone strikes.
This reckoning for modern politicians is reflected in today’s campaigns. The “Settle for Biden” movement during the 2020 election further exemplifies how alien the heroic “The West Wing” theme feels now. These days, we’re somehow lucky to have a politician whose policies at least do not actively incite violence.
Indeed, it seems like the bar has never been lower.
But this isn’t to say the only modern cultural take on politics is purely cynicism. Comedies like “Parks and Recreation” represent an otherwise corrupt system with an optimistic lens. Who could forget how underqualified yet corporate-backed Bobby Newport’s campaign, filled with idiotic lines like “I’m against crime, and I’m not ashamed to admit it” and “I guess my thoughts on abortion are, you know, let’s have a good time” was highly competitive to Leslie Knope’s, a woman who had actively worked for the good of her community her entire life? While the show worked to portray this realistic, albeit satirized, perspective of politics, underdog Leslie is still able to work her way through an unfair system that empowers money over merit, representing the ability to enact positive change despite systemic obstacles.
The issue with “The West Wing” is that it never really takes this type of perspective. To be sure, the show does depict realistic situations and positive social change, like in the episode where fictional Supreme Court nominee Roberto Mendoza was arrested for drunk driving, leading to discussion of the racial disparities in policing. But the problem is that these social issues are neatly wrapped up by politician heroes who immediately see the problem and work to fix it. “The West Wing” promotes the idea that genuinely putting morality first is part of the status quo for politicians.
Anyone can tell you that the real world does not work so simply, and it’s frustrating to be fed the perspective that it does.
Today, I watch “The West Wing” with jaded eyes, gagging at the notion that politicians can be treated like angels. But while “The West Wing” might be unwatchable in a post-Trump political climate, maybe there’s something to be learned from it at the same time. Or rather, reminded. “The West Wing” represents a forgotten world where we had higher expectations for our politicians. The issue is that while we had these expectations, before the popularity of social media we also had limited feedback about whether or not these expectations were actually being met. Television may have once depicted politicians as Josiah Bartlets, but that doesn’t mean power hungry politicians like Selina Meyer or corporate backed fools like Bobby Newport haven’t always existed in the real world.
Now we know better.
Maybe it’s time we expect more from our politicians — for real this time.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.