Healthcare win shows Obama is no West Wing fan
Today’s news that the House of Representatives has passed an amended version of the healthcare Bill promised by Barack Obama shows an interesting contrast with the achievements of the Clinton administration. And of course, with the fictional administration of Jed Bartlett in the West Wing.
When I wrote a blog post about how I dislike the political strategy at the heart of the West Wing I knew I’d get a bit of a response. Now seems like the right time to restate my argument. At heart my problem has never been with the televisual spectacle of the West Wing, it’s with what a superficial understanding of the frequently excellent melodrama has to say about politics. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum in what follows.
At the heart of the West Wing is a political strategy called triangulation. Triangulation is the process of moving your party into the middle ground in the hope of attracting larger numbers of voters. It’s been effective in getting parties of the centre-left, like the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the UK. It was what allowed Bill Clinton to get elected twice. But it fails dismally to change the political culture of those countries. I think it’s at the root of the disaffection with politics that is so damaging to our country, and to America.
Obama’s approach on healthcare has been to take a principled stand, work out how best he can secure a positive outcome and use that position to provide healthcare for all. While it’s not the ideal approach, and is too favourable to the insurance companies, it’s an awful lot better than the current approach. It sets the groundwork for a fully public option in future. The political strategy that delivered this is as far from triangulation as anyone can get. This is a policy change that liberals in the US have been trying to achieve for over 100 years. And now it’s been successful.
To use another example, when New Labour came to power in the late 1990s, it failed to follow through on many of the promises made in opposition. This is why, after 13 years, the UK has made little progress on key issues like child poverty. But there was one area where Labour followed its convictions. It pursued rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people to the point where Peter Tatchell can say there’s little left to achieve in legislation. The result has been a dramatic transformation in public attitudes to LGBT issues. While the public is now less convinced that poverty is a problem, it is broadly supportive of LGBT rights. This shows what Labour could have achieved without triangulation.
The most thorough critique of my blog post was from James at Two Doctors. He points to what I think is at the heart of my objection to triangulation. He says that Bartlett was on the right side on gays in the military. Unfortunately the Bartlett administration fails to do anything about it. West Wing politics is too often about thinking the right things, but not doing anything about them. For many of the worst Labour Students I’ve encountered (they’re the most committed West Wing enthusiasts), politics is essentially an ego trip. The only point is to get them into office. Once they’re there they convince themselves the decisions they make must be the best ones. If they ever had principles they get jettisoned in the quest for power.
Many of the worst examples of triangulation result from people who think the right things but do the wrong things. Too often we are asked to support politicians because they agree with us but are too cowardly to do anything about it. The point of politics is to make the world a better place. It’s to stop injustice. It’s to end poverty. It’s to stop climate change and support human rights. It’s not to get yourself into an office and, if you’re really lucky, a ministerial limo. Because so many people involved in politics think it’s all about getting into office politics is held in contempt.
Part of the problem is that people seem to genuinely think that they can learn how to do politics from the West Wing. I’ve watched all seven series of Six Feet Under. I don’t feel equipped to be an undertaker. James describes the West Wing as inspiring. It’s only inspiring if the point of politics is to get yourself into power. For me politics is about something much bigger. Ending apartheid is inspiring. Getting votes for women is inspiring. Ending the hundred year wait for universal health care is inspiring. It’s inspiring to be able to change the world. Merely being elected or selected into some office is not inspiring
The big difference between Bartlett’s fictional administration and the Obama Presidency is that throughout the West Wing, President Bartlett fails to change almost anything. In fact, he only gets one serious policy change through, and then, only because both Democrats and Republicans agree it is needed. Towards the end of his term in office, when his staff are asked to defend his record, they list “8 years of peace and economic growth.” For me, the point of the West Wing is that it is a lesson in how progressives can fail. But worryingly so many seem to think it is to be emulated.
By contrast Obama has shown that it’s possible to make real change, by avoiding triangulation. He has changed America – hopefully permanently – for the good by being true to his politics. He has succeeded where Clinton’s triangulation so spectacularly failed.
Being an MP, a Chief of Staff or even President isn’t inspiring. They might be good ways to change the world. But triangulation is never about changing the world. It’s about power, not change. It’s about the individual, not about the ideas. It’s about putting those ideas into legislation and changing spending. And while the West Wing is great TV, poorly understood, it is terrible for politics.