Sacha Ismail is obsessed with The West Wing (Season six, out on DVD and showing on more4)
For those who’ve somehow managed to miss it so far, The West Wing is set in an alternative reality in which, instead of Bush, the American electorate has opted for a liberal, intellectual, east coast Democrat President. Focusing heavily on machinations within the White House and the US Congress, The West Wing chronicles the personal and political adventures of President Josiah Bartlett and his team of (right on, quirky and, oh, did I mention good-looking) staff.
The quality of the show has varied between seasons and episodes, but throughout it has combined high drama and highly amusing dialogue, and gets some fairly substantial politics in there too.
But what are those politics? Watch a single episode, and it should be obvious that creator Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing’s other leading lights are left liberals: pro-public spending, pro-choice, anti-gun and above all anti-Republican. But the high quality of the plots and scripts means that, inevitably, they come up against both the Democratic Party and liberalism’s political limits.
In one episode for instance, communications director Toby is forced to confront a group of angry anti-capitalist students. In another, deputy chief of staff Josh realises that Bartlett’s support for free trade will mean breaking the promise of protecting jobs he made to communication workers during the Democratic primary campaign.
The tone is generally hostile to corporate power and influence. However, the whole nature of the enterprise means that it is fundamentally pro-Democrat, with all the political problems that follow from that.
This is highly apparent in Season Six. Bartlett has entered his last year in office and, faced with a strong, clever, “moderate” Republican presidential candidate (the candidate Bartlett beat to win re-election in Season Four was more of a Bush-type), his staff are divided between the campaigns of different Democratic contenders.
The creators’ sympathies are obviously with Josh, who gives up his job in the White House to run the apparently hopeless campaign of Matt Santos, a young, aggressive, Latino Congressman from Texas. Santos is appears to be a fresh-thinking, radical insurgent, with his campaign announcements regularly embarrassing Josh, but in fact his politics are more realistic than Bartlett’s cuddly liberalism.
Like Blair and Clinton he focuses on education, but does this to “make our children stronger in the world marketplace” and his key pledge — which plays quite a large role as the plot unfolds — is “reform” schools by abolishing teachers’ job security and “standing up to” the teachers’ unions!
The season finale, set at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention, is thrilling, but leaves you with an inescapable conclusion: America produces great television, but crap politics.