I wanted to try and write something about The West Wing but I have already waited too long and forgotten many of the points I wanted to make; no doubt I can return to this post after future re-viewings (which I am sure there will be).
I do not want to spend too long on the programme’s utter brilliance as televisual art – the scripts, acting, camera-work all of the highest possible order. Much of the programme’s appeal of course comes from what might be described as the ‘non-political’ elements; the development and interaction of characters and story-lines (was there ever a more delayed romance than that of Donna and Josh?) and such utterly extraordinary episodes as that of Mrs Landingham’s funeral – flashbacks and Martin Sheen ranting at God in the Cathedral. No doubt all this has been covered many thousand times.
No, what I wanted to do was to take a look at the politics which underlay the programme and some of its assumptions and philosophies. Given that this was a portrait of a Democratic Presidency, an idealised if not idealistic Democratic Presidency, what did it say and show about American tenets and beliefs? What came as a surprise or new to me? And where did it get things wrong? The following are in the nature of rough notes to which I can return after future viewings.
- The centrality of the military. Points 1-3 are all things that I knew but which The West Wing re-inforced. The military is pretty idealised. I think only in one episode, in the discussion of gays in the military is there much sustained criticism. America is a militarised society and politicians have to deal with this.
- The centrality of religion. The programme is certainly a lot more critical and questioning about the role of religion in politics – after all the very first episode is centred on the absurd yet threatening evangelists. But the centrality of religion in American life is constantly referred to.
- The American ideal. This is really the central plank of the programme’s politics and agenda. American ideals are the best and when lived up to form a template for the good life (in a moral sense). A thorough-going patriotism runs through the programme. But this is not merely domestic and leads us to..
- Imperialism. The programme consistently argues the case for more foreign interventions whether in Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia. These interventions can be in the guise of humanitarianism or political justice or to keep the peace. They are part of the burden of being the world’s greatest power.
- The Executive/Legislative divide. Obviously this occupies much of the programme’s story-lines and was much the most educational aspect for me. I learnt a lot more about how American politics functions (or does not function) in this respect. It was fascinating and inevitable to make comparisons to the UK. The American President is both far more and far less powerful than a British PM (I mean within their own countries; obviously an American president is much, much more powerfully globally because America is much more powerful). The President is more powerful because his control over the State apparatus, particularly the military and quasi-military functions, is much more complete. His role as Head of State means he accrues many more ‘trappings of power’. On the other hand a British PM is much more powerful because his power over the Legislature is much more complete – in current practice anyway (the theory and history are quite different). Of course this is in part because you cannot have differing parties controlling the Legislature and Executive in the UK. But even where the same party was in control in the US the degree of independence (and hence the less the power of the President) would be much less.
- The treatment of Native Americans. This was certainly the biggest shock to me. The episode ‘The Indians in The Lobby’ obviously brought this home but I really had no idea that things continued to be so bad ; it was not so much the facts, as the way in which the programme obviously felt that this was an accurate portrayal of how Native Americans would be treated/perceived – which was as a sort of joke. The degree of racism accorded them, albeit of a casual, dismissive variety, was extraordinary to me and obviously in sharp contrast to the programme’s discussion of issues around African or Hispanic Americans. In one of the very last episodes it is announced that Bartlett is visiting a reservation and revealed that the last President to have done so was FDR before the War!
- Things which the programme got wrong. Obviously there was no way of foreseeing the global economic crisis. The one which sticks in my mind is Russia. In the early series Russia is portrayed as a broken, poverty-stricken state. I would have thought that in 1999 (the year of the first series) it should have been clear that whatever the short-term difficulties might be the energy resources which Russia possessed guaranteed that it would remain a major power and an ever wealthier power. By later series this is sort of assumed though no explanation for the shift is ever given.
The dominant ethos is one of patriotic, idealised imperialism; ‘The American Burden’. Little attention or understanding is given to other world-views or cultures. They are just ‘other’ and wrong.
But all these jottings are just notes which I can work off in future viewings.