Ahead of the 2020 election, the cast of “The West Wing” were back at it again, releasing a special episode on Oct. 15 to encourage people to vote. “The West Wing” was something rare in television: a show that had an impact. I have worked on political campaigns, I have worked on the Hill, and I have yet to meet a staffer who has not watched show creator Aaron Sorkin’s Camelot-esque rendering of Washington.
Stuck in quarantine and despairing about the state of our politics, I binge-watched “The West Wing” again (only the first four seasons, which are the ones Sorkin wrote). The elements that made Sorkin’s show brilliant remain so: soaring soliloquies, innovative cinematography (the famous Sorkin “walk-and-talk”) and witty, fast-paced dialogue. But on the whole, the show has aged horribly.
To begin, there is the blatant sexism repeatedly inserted as a cheap punchline. The president frequently mocks the first lady’s initiatives and puts down one of her lead projects, the Women’s Caucus, as her “sewing thing.” Secretarial work is a woman’s job, as male characters frequently joke. The president dryly remarks that he hired a female lawyer because she was a “blonde, Republican sex kitten.” One character, British Ambassador Lord John Marbury, who takes the role of a Shakespearean clown, leans entirely upon his misogyny and sexual harassment — including frequently attemping to grope female subordinates — for his comic relief.
However, the larger problem underpinning “The West Wing” is its romanticization of aristocratic, meritocratic governance: the same aristocratic technocracy that led us to the problems of 2020.
When hiring a deputy, President Bartlet makes him promise to remember that a small group of dedicated people can change the world, because it is the only thing that ever has. This is the message of “The West Wing,” intended as an inspirational rallying cry to every activist the world over. But that presidential pledge also reveals the deeper problem underlying every interaction in the show. President Bartlet’s fortune cookie wisdom reveals a demoralizing truth about the show: In Aaron Sorkin’s Washington, power is given to the few and privileged, while the rest of us can only watch.
The lead characters of “The West Wing” are all fantastically wealthy, well-credentialed scions of the coastal upper class who claim to speak for the “little guy” without ever interacting with the average American. Sam Seaborn, deputy White House communications director and the initial male lead of the show, is a Princeton and Duke Law graduate from affluent Orange County, California, who made $400,000 a year as a liability lawyer for corporate clients before joining President Bartlet’s staff. C.J. Cregg, press secretary, made $550,000 a year working in Hollywood before her presidential appointment. Will Bailey, Sam’s replacement, is an Eton valedictorian, the son of the supreme allied commander of NATO, a silver spoon prince who vacations at Rothschild châteaus. The list goes on and on. Remember, these are dollar amounts from the year 2000.
Sorkin’s characters are consistently the worst type of Ivy League snobs, the kind who constantly brag about their Fulbright scholarships and SAT scores. The unbearable narcissism of the characters aside, the truth is that for a show which ostensibly attempted to demystify the Oval Office for the average American, there are very few points of entry for the working class. Like a Middle Age or Romantic era epic — feudal and royalist apologia — “The West Wing” is a story of heroic aristocrats, nobly crusading for virtue.
Much like a Yale undergraduate, the show tries to cover up its upper-class roots by recasting itself as a working-class drama. Will Bailey, a man who vacations with Rothschilds, somehow lives in a Holiday Inn. In one episode, C.J. Cregg mentions that she only has $1,331 in her checking account. Did she so quickly spend away the $550,000 salary she had been making?
The Wisconsinite Donna Moss is one of the very few truly middle-class characters who takes a lead role, and her success is at least partially attributable to her boss’s long-running crush on her, a situation made even more uncomfortable in the #MeToo era. The rest of the female and working-class characters are simply extras to populate the background of the boisterous show.
The aristocratic snobbery also extends to the characters’ views on pop culture. When an intern wears her “Star Trek” button to work, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman mocks her obsession with the show. The timing of his speech, the score and the body language of the scene all indicate that we are supposed to be on Lyman’s side as he beats down on cult obsessives of popular television. But in other episodes of the show, various main characters are revealed to be equally obsessed with their own hobbies. In those moments, we are supposed to be on the side of the fans, feeling the same admiration for high art as they do. In one episode, Sam Seaborn proudly declares himself the recording secretary of the Princeton Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the main characters throw a party themed around the 19th-century playwright-composer duo. Victorian-era musical theater is to be memorized, quoted and proudly sung. A similar obsession with a more popular, more vulgus show, is something of which to be ashamed.
The political philosophy of “The West Wing” is a meritocratic technocracy. If we all just let the experts be and elected smart people to govern us, our problems would be solved. Josh Lyman, the show’s central character, repeatedly disparages the electorate, angrily ranting about the limits of democracy and the idiocy of “the voters you champion and I can’t stand.”
In fact, we are supposed to see the Bartlett administration as virtuous for soldiering on in spite of a lack of popular support. The president is first elected on the narrowest of pluralities, never wins a majority in the House (during the Sorkin years) and faces chronically low approval ratings. But like any technocratic administration, democratic support is less important than the people in charge doing what they think is right.
Sorkin then writes the subsequent reelection campaign as a romantic quest of elite nobles to win over the hearts and minds of average Americans. The campaign between President Bartlet and his Republican challenger is not a debate of ideas, but a debate of smart versus stupid. In Sorkin’s writing, the conservative position is simply a grievance war from illiterate America launched against “the New York Times people” (not the staff of the Times but “people who can read”). Sorkin’s argument for the Bartlet administration is simply that they are smart and their Republican counterparts are not. President Bartlet may have endangered national security by lying about a critical illness and failed to build any legislative record on which to campaign, but the president is a Nobel Prize-winning economist surrounded by an Ivy League staff. Come on America, let the smart people run things, please.
In the midst of the George Bush presidency, and in the never-ending saga of the Trump administration, “let the experts run things” is appealing. But the show’s politics of aristocratic technocracy could not foresee the elite failures that brought us first Obama and then Trump. In 2008, a historically broad coalition of everyday Americans elected then-Senator Obama as an outsider candidate running against the failed establishment of Washington. The Bush administration had blundered us into a failed invasion of the Middle East that murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians and started a forever war on a flank we could not hold. Then, a Wall Street spectacle of greed, corruption and carelessness wiped out the American middle class and wrecked the global economy.
Elected as a reformer, President Obama governed as an elite, establishment moderate. The Obama administration failed to punish those responsible for the calamitous recession and failed to narrow the ever-widening chasm between the American aristocracy and everyone else. Vast swaths of America felt left behind by the technocratic tendencies of the Obama years, leading to a wave of progressive support for Bernie Sanders on the left and reactionary support for Donald Trump on the right. And ultimately, in the race between establishment and outsider, working-class white America voted for the outsider once again.
Of course, income inequality is only among many factors voters consider, but the ever-widening gap between the meritocratic aristocracy and everyone else has certainly contributed to the populist resurgence of the last decade. All around the world, working-class voters feel that the professional classes have left them behind. In France, working-class voters who feel disregarded by Emmanuel Macron’s elite technocracy powered “yellow vest” protests. In Britain, working-class exhaustion with neoliberal economics manifested itself in Brexit.
And in Syria, Western leaders across the board, wary of opening another Iraq, failed to intervene. While the elite in Washington watched impotently, the Syrian Civil War spiraled into a humanitarian crisis with global implications. The wave of six million Syrian refugees streaming from Turkey into Europe invigorated nativist concerns and built even more backlash against the tenuous center. “The West Wing” politics of “let the smart guys run everything” have failed to prevent foreign policy catastrophes and allowed elites to stand idly by while working-class wages stagnate, the cost of living soars, and the middle class crumbles.
The question of today is how to address the crisis of meritocracy. When the elites have failed, how do we respond? Donald Trump’s answer to meritocracy was feudalism: aristocracy without the merit. Like royal commissions in late Ancien Régime France, Trump administration appointments and nominations were seemingly up for sale to the highest bidder. Blatantly unqualified aristocrats like Betsy DeVos sauntered into cabinet positions in exchange for large sums of campaign cash. The president set up his family like a medieval monarchy, parceling off his dominion between Jared, Ivanka, Eric and Don. After the Trump administration, a return to Obama-era technocracy looks good.
But the Romantic vision of “The West Wing,” of a world in which a few meritocratic elites could pave the path forward for the rest of us, is irrevocably dead. The question left to us is President Bartlet’s trademark prompt: “What’s next?”
Timothy Han | email@example.com