The West Wing: What I've Learned About American Politics

My first recollection of The West Wing was as a trailer on a Friends video. Yes, that long ago, and yes, I wasn’t in the loop. In fact I didn’t ever see an episode until about 2 months ago. Since then I have seen all 7 seasons, every episode, plus a few extras.

Bartlett's hair definitely changed colour fast - stress?

I enjoyed it, although probably not as much as people expected me to, and definitely not as much as my husband whose every break has been filled with a plea of “West Wing?” I loved Bartlett’s wit and compassion; I loved the sass of CJ; the cute sobriety of Toby; Sam’s pretty eyes; the ridiculous relationship between Josh and Donna; the sonly cheek of  Charlie; Margaret’s weirdness; contrasts of Ainsley; the geeky nature of Will eventually paired with the warrior princess Kate; Mrs Landingham‘s maternal control over everyone; the wisdom of Leo; the power of Abby Bartlett; the rebellion of each Bartlett daughter; Danny’s flirtations; and on it goes..

The West Wing made me debate politics that doesn’t exist, it has got me mad over decisions made, sad about some of the truth echoed by true world events, and in general a little exhausted watching it all go on. I knew a little about American politics before, and had watched (and read up on) previous elections, particularly the McCain-Obama race, but a lot just didn’t make sense to me. In the UK it’s a different game entirely – something I am glad or sad about in varying amounts. However, here are a few things The West Wing taught me through the seasons:

1. What a Filabuster is.
I would love to see this used in British politics, but ours doesn’t make that much of a media stir, plus I would feel both pity and admiration for anyone willing to take it on.

2. That professional politics is a lot about who you know.
This is probably the same in the UK, and I just haven’t noticed, but the fact that there seem to be such strange battles over loyalty, trust and support is a little sad. I guess it makes sense in the US but to me it seemed like it would be very hard to get anything done at all if you hadn’t sent everyone hampers and cookie bouquets first.

3. The press have a scary amount of power.
This is true worldwide but I think this needs saying: with power comes responsibility. In the UK we’ve had enough of a news story just trying to tear someone down without evidence or proof of the accusation. The press can destroy lives. The other thing is that the press are our only real source of what is going on. The public tend to appreciate the truth, even if it’s not that nice, but tone is everything: don’t freak us out just to watch us cause chaos.

4. Politics seems more about “winning” than doing the right thing.
Whether it’s election time or not, the two major parties seem more concerned about gaining the House, gaining the Senate, tricking the other side into doing what you want, and often shoving it in their face so they know you’re boss. More often than not this fight is pretty pointless and it would be better to do what you can to do something decent for the country as a whole. If you miss this point out of politics, you’re just a child squabbling for control of the playground.

5. Democracy is not always a good thing.
Whatever you say about it being the fairer way, democracy is pretty awful. I’m not suggesting there’s a better option, but when a mob can swing the vote, the press can focus on stupid issues instead of important ones, when the minority basically doesn’t count unless they have a bigger, bolder friend, it becomes a dangerous arena for making decisions. Even if most people vote for something, it doesn’t mean they’re right. Even if only a small minority are against something, it doesn’t make them wrong. This is the harsh truth of democratic politics.

6. America is a little arrogant about their place in the world.
I get patriotism, in some ways it is really wonderfully refreshing to see people proud of the country they were born. But, The West Wing did tend to have every other world power acting like a petulant child who POTUS is babysitting. He turns his back for one minute and Britain have thrown a tantrum and hit France, another second China are throwing Tibet around in the swingseat, another and Russia have started stealing other kids toys. I’m not saying America aren’t pretty powerful, but I’d suggest that pride could be toned down a little. The Babylonian Empire fell, so did the Greeks, and the Roman Empire, it’s not such a wild idea that one day you won’t be the calling the shots. If you show some humility it won’t matter because the rest of world will want to keep you around.

Hopefully, those in power at least have good intentions. The people of the USA voted for their first black president and that was pretty exciting – if only because it meant Sarah Palin would never have control over the Nuclear red button. I like to trust humanity, I like to think good honest debate can show someone’s true colours, I like to think people vote for policies rather than celebrities. I like to think that the bad things I learnt from The West Wing don’t have much of a hold, and the good are prime examples of the country. I have many American friends and love them dearly, so the US of A must be doing something right.

And yes, I did cry at the Finale.

God bless America!

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