I’ve been waiting to write a blog post about The West Wing for, well, probably my whole life, if I’m really being honest. I started watching the television drama when I was still in elementary school, and I can guarantee I was one of the only 8 years old in America to be more excited to watch Rob Lowe write speeches than watch Miley Cyrus turn into Hannah Montana. In the 22 years since the show first aired, politics in America have changed immensely, but one thing never has — whether people love it or hate it, people just can’t stop referencing The West Wing.
Most recently, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referenced the show, and another political comedy, Veep, at her briefing.
When trying to answer a question about whether there would be a vote on infrastructure (the bipartisan bill tied to the larger reconciliation bill that includes climate action — more on that here), Jen Psaki jokingly emphasized that D.C. was like a television show, and she could not predict the future. When asked which show, she said, “Maybe The West Wing, if something good happens, maybe Veep if not.”
And herein lies the problem. If we do things right, the negotiations should really not end up like either show. I’ve seen The West Wing too many times to count, and while I’ve never made it all the way through Veep, I’ve seen several episodes. The shows are often brought up in opposition to one another — The West Wing being the escapist fantasy and Veep being one of the most accurate and cynical depictions of Washington. Now, I agree that many many aspects of The West Wing have not aged well, but I’ll always go to bat for my favorite show, and any inspirational television that reminds us that we shouldn’t have to settle for the power hungry incompetence of Veep. I can also come to terms with the fact that today we live in a Veep world. In reality, though, the shows are more similar than different. They both hyper focus on political staffers in the most political city in America.
Despite extensive research, Veep and The West Wing both miss out on a huge part of the political picture. By focusing so exclusively on Washington, they miss out on the role everyday people play in our system. As Alison Harmon writes of The West Wing, “It’s not a show about movement politics, but the technocrats who rarely venture outside the Beltway to see the impact their spirited debates have on real people.” Beyond just excluding this perspective, The West Wing goes so far as to regularly ridicule the scientists, advocacy groups, and citizens that dare to get involved. On Big Block of Cheese Day (based off an Andrew Jackson tradition), staffers in the show were always assigned to meet with social organizations. While eventually a lesson is usually learned about the importance of civic engagement, in the process, the activists are almost always the punchline. Despite the feel-good story of bringing new perspectives to the White House, the activists are never fleshed out characters, their work is never depicted or respected, and they are simply a plot device to serve the staffer’s growth.
In the world of political television shows, I have yet to watch or hear of one that elevates the voices of the organizers across the country working to get things done. We live in a world now where social movements are proliferating. People are getting involved. You can see hundreds of such efforts on the Climate Action Explorer, we’ve chronicled their success in Movement Monday, and today’s negotiations are no exception. Jen Psaki is wrong — the negotiations will not be like The West Wing or Veep, because no matter whether we see a Washington that is soaring and idealistic, or bumbling and craven, we’re already seeing an American people who are determined. We know we need climate action, and we’re protesting, calling, and organizing ourselves to make it happen. There is a whole country outside the Beltway, full of people who each leads a life worth saving. You’re one of them. Will you get involved today to take back your role in this script?
My favorite speech in The West Wing includes the line, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.” Having faith in the idealism of The West Wing, to me, means leaving the White House itself, and finding hope in the limitless capacity of people across the nation working together.