Why I hate the West Wing
I have a terrible confession to make. For someone who enjoys his politics, is intrigued by interpersonal interaction and has a, possibly undue, interest in public administration I hate the West Wing. I’m possibly the only person with this set of interests that can’t stand the programme.
It’s not because I dislike the actors, the production or the setting. It’s not because I don’t like American politics, it’s because of the impact it’s had on our politics. The acting is fantastic, the scripting is almost immaculate. The characterisation is excellent. The West Wing is almost perfect television.
But the reason I dislike it so much is because, taken superficially (as it almost always is) it creates a particular type of politics. And that type of politics is poisonous.
It’s often said that the West Wing was a fantasy for American liberals of what politics should be like. Rather than a mono-syllabic war monger in the White House, there is a cerebral, well educated and articulate liberal.
But I’m not sure that’s the case. The West Wing is built on the doctrine that brought Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to power – triangulation. This is the process of moving yourself into the middle ground. By moving away from your vote base, you are able to peel votes off your opponents. This often involves a symbolic move from the party base. Blair abolished Clause 4, while Clinton executed a man with severe learning disabilities.
Then you try to make sure that you’re in the middle on every issue, keeping a perpetual majority. Be careful never to pander to your party’s core support with better Union rights or higher welfare payments. Meanwhile your opponents might be arguing over whether to stay in the EU, or over abortion and gay rights. Labour and the Democrats were able to cruise to victories in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Both Blair and Clinton were successful premiers, winning more elections than they could have expected to. So why is triangulation a problem? It’s because after a while the electorate loses any sense of what your party means. In 2000 the Democrats were unable to beat a uniquely weak presidential campaign by George W. Bush. After the Blair years Labour is in real electoral trouble. Further, they haven’t achieved much of their programme. Child poverty hasn’t been eliminated, social mobility is diminishing and a whole range of indicators show a society less equal than before.
When you compare how effective administrations that don’t triangulate have been, you can see how ineffective this strategy is. Both Thatcher and Reagan managed to fundamentally change the way the state works. Thatcher came as close to creating a parliamentary revolution as has ever happened. Neither lost an election. Their legacies are still felt today.
So how does this relate to the West Wing? Well, almost every political office will have someone who thinks of themselves as Josh Lyman or CJ Cregg. Almost everyone in politics will, at some point, have pretended that they’re acting like a character from The West Wing and with this comes the insipid and pervasive stench of triangulation.
Every time you see a press release, or other communication that is low on content and high on bile for other parties, you see the influence of The West Wing. Every time someone talks about how their party would bring ‘good governance’, you see the influence of the West Wing. And every time you wonder why politics is stale and increasingly irrelevant you see the influence of the West Wing.
Triangulation has a very specific and limited use. It’s what you do if you’re the main party of opposition and you want to be in government, but not really to change anything. That’s why it worked for the SNP – the main opposition in Scotland with the strategic aim of showing they can be trusted with government. It is impossible for a small party, or third party to triangulate as the party’s core support is almost inevitably too small to sustain this strategy. And that’s one of the fundamental problems with the Liberal Democrats.
If you’re a small party, if you want to change things, or if you want to care about anything other than the interpersonal melodrama of politics then triangulation is a completely pointless waste of your time. Sadly, it’s destroying our political culture and stopping us from dealing with serious threats like poverty and climate change.
For most progressives, politics shouldn’t be about just getting into power to do the same things that whoever’s there at the moment would do. It’s about shaping the future, changing things and making the world a much, much better place. Triangulation robs politics of that ambition, and with it goes the potential to change the world.
However much you like the West Wing, it’s not worth throwing away politics’ enormous potential for change.