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.
Thanks for your comments. I think the problem is not actually with the West Wing itself. It’s with the way people in politics empathise with the characters and try to emulate them. You’re right that a critical understanding of the West Wing doesn’t lead to triangulation, quite the reverse.
But you only need to spend a short period around most triangulators in politics to discover that the West Wing is at the heart of their approach. It’s referred to as justification for triangulation like religious fundamentalists use sacred texts.
So the slightly hyperbolic headline hides my agreement with you!
Can I add, the only reason why Josh joined the Bartlet campaign was because he was genuine. He didn’t try and pander to voters.
Toby told Bartlet in a town hall event at the start of the campaign to tell the truth if he was asked about the farmer’s bill that cost his constituents against the advice of the advisers that were telling him to pander to the farmers and triangulate.
They were quickly fired in the episode.
Sam Seaborn came on to the campaign because Josh came to him and told him that “Bartlet was the real thing”. Josh had been working on the Hoynes campaign for the nomination and was trying to triangulate to get Hoynes the nomination and then the presidency.
Hoynes was the Clinton/Blair/Brown/Cameron of the Democratic primary and he didn’t win.
The guys did triangulate but they ended up getting burned.
As other commenters have said the guys in the WW do better when they “Let Bartlet be Bartlet”
As for blaming the West Wing for triangulation, thats not really true. Clinton won in 96 and Blair won in 97. The first series of the WW started in 99.
If anything the West Wing shows why not to triangulate.
In the Californian election in series 4 where the candidate died, the Democrat campaign became about ideas rather than people and policies. They ended up winning in a Republican stronghold. Doesn’t that show exactly the opposite of what you are trying to say here.
But beyond the arguments made above, The West Wing is not styled to show a “true” depiction of politics in America. The show is more about the day to day struggles of individual public servants (how working in government affects them, their private lives etc etc) while utilizing larger, more universal truths. It’s television and although Bartlet was a north-eastern intellectual liberal, not alienating the many conservative viewers was surely a high priority for the network. In fact, in the second episode we see pissed off, ready to go to war Bartlet. (obviously deliberate). Not liking The West Wing because Bartlet is not a revolutionary or because he always seems to “triangulate” as you say, is just proof that viewers, especially in Europe, have taken this show WAY too seriously. They are characters with scripts working within the parameters of what has actually taken place in America. TV needs to reach a mass market, and the brilliance of The West Wing was being able to do that with important subject matter that the viewers could relate to. Sounds to me like you should hate your politicians for being influenced by a TV show…not the other way around.
Wow! Intelligent and well-thought-out. Just wondering though, although as a die-hard fan I like to kid myself into thinking that the West Wing is a Global Force for Good… do you think maybe triangulation thinking that was current influenced the West Wing writing/politics, rather than necessarily the other way round? Clinton and Blair were both around before 1999, after all…
I don’t watch The West Wing, but what you say about triangulation makes perfect sense to me and its screamingly obvious that this is why voting turnouts are so pathetically low come election time, and even worse, why so many who do vote base their decisions on nothing more than the leader’s personality and celebrity status.
I’ve only recently taken a more proactive interest in politics. Perhaps due to the nature of my job, or maybe its just because I increasingly recognise its significance to my life – Who knows.
So, what do I do first – I take steps to learn more about our political parties and understand what their values and politics are so I can decide where to set my stall. Who I believe in and want to support and follow.
It was bloody difficult to do this when everyone is sitting on the fence and saying alot about nothing!
Unless the public can strongly identify with a party’s values and align these with their own beliefs and concerns, then why bother taking that trip down to the poll station to vote.
There’s no motivation.
There’s no feeling of loyalty or connection to a party.
There’s no point if everyone is saying they’ll do the same thing anyway.
I agree with Adam.
I have, incidentally, gotten a GREAT and genuinely-progressive idea from the West Wing, and put it into practice. It was the CLEAN CAMPAIGN PLEDGE – and that one, I even got from the Republicans (on the programme)! 😉
This Pledge helped clean up the Norwich North byelection, and seems now to be exerting a bigger positive effect on British politics.
Stuart, the funny thing is that Britain has had coalition governments before: during both World Wars, for instance. The nation didn’t explode because Lloyd George headed a government that contained both Liberals and Conservatives. We were probably led more effectively because Churchill had Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin by his side. Coalitions are not a problem, unless absolute power means more to you than the good of the country.
I agree with what’s already been said here, but to me the world of politics has got to a stage where everyone is just terrified of upsetting a certain sub section of society because it might just mean they lose the election. Tories and Labour only see winning and winning out right as the goal- they just can’t comprehend the idea of coalitions or minority governments (and you wonder which parliament is the immature one…) The middle is cosy, warm, and nice in some ways but it must lead to a heck of a lot of paranoia and self loathing in politicians.
This is a major argument I bring up when it comes to debating proportional representation. Let’s embrace it and all just CHILL THE **** OUT!
Tories- you love the free market, so why not just say so?
Labour- you want centralised regulation of markets and believe in Social Justice. Say it and Do it.
Lib Dems- just be whatever it is you are!
(I’ve not bothered with the Greens here as, well, they tend to say what they mean anyway)
Do you see? Now we can have a proper debate about what matters, and no one has to worry about upsetting members of the public who wouldn’t naturally vote for them in the first place, in fact, you might even win over some people who didn’t actually realise what you stood for because of your constant middle ground cosiness!!
Could we resurrect Roy Jenkins (probably the last MP to have any balls- sticking to what he believed in no matter what) please?! Thank you.
Whilst I agree there are grave risks from triangulation, I don’t agree that the West Wing holds it up as the path to follow. As Adam suggests above, if anything it shows that when the characters stay most true to their core principles they do best. It’s when they try to be too clever and negotiate that they get burnt in the long run. The same again with the final Obama-like presidential campaign that filled the final seasons.
I also agree that proportional representation reduces the temptation to triangulate. Politics in Norway, Sweden, Germany etc have much more diverse viewpoints in their discourse.
You are right that most people get obsessed with being Josh. But I think a lot of the tension in the show is about the fact that, although you like these people, and they are the good guys, they don’t really get anything much done in the whole presidency. I think (as Bright Green blogger Gary Dunion has commented before) that this is, in a way, the lesson they are trying to teach us – they do well when they ‘let Bartlett be Bartlett’ and they do badly when they try to triangulate. So the lesson, if anything, is, don’t triangulate, do what you think is right and people will respect you for it. Unfortunately far too many people (and I’m thinking in particular of people in student politics, as that’s the turf I know best) think that the point is that it’s exciting to be doing deals in some position of power, rather than actually winning arguments and campaigning for what you believe in.
This is perhaps an argument for proportional representation; in a duopoly, your task is to convince enough centrist voters to follow you and not the other fellow. In a situation where there are various shades of political opinion, then it becomes a matter of clarity of ideas: it’s healthy that Germany has five sizeable political parties (SDP, CDU, FDP, Greens, Linkspartei), each with their own programme – yes, compromises happen in order for government to function, but at least five different visions of how the country is supposed to be run are articulated. It’s not a surefire cure, but it beats the same-old, same-old.