Trashing the West Wing

Luke Savage doesn’t much like the West Wing (TWW). Or so I gather from his article in Current Affairs. I’m fine with that.

But to criticize a body of work, particularly a very complex work that stretches out over seven years, a critic really needs to find a place to stand. Savage doesn’t do that in this piece, but since he needs it so urgently, I think I can help him there.

Once we find a place for him to stand, we will be able to understand his criticismwingnut 3 more more clearly and to evaluate it more thoughtfully. In a way, I am not the ideal person to do this. I am, I need to say, a fan of TWW—the kind of person who was referred to in the chatrooms as a “wing nut.”  I participated in the chatrooms. I taught a university course about the West Wing. I own the DVDs of all seven seasons and I do, in fact, refer back to the issues that are raised more urgently and ominously in the Trump administration. [1]

On the other hand, I am a good choice for this task in other ways. I do understand the relationship between a critic’s home ground and the plausibility of the criticisms. Whenever you say that something should have been done, for example, you are implying that it could have been done. Whenever you say that one thing was a bad thing to do, you are suggesting that something else would have been better. Critics like Savage don’t ordinarily take the time to justify the tacitly proposed course of action. Just condemning the action taken is usually enough and that is what we find in this piece.

So…who is Luke Savage and what is he using as a baseline in his evaluation of TWW? Savage writes for a new magazine called Jacobin. Here is what they say about themselves on their website.

Jacobin is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.

Here is what Chris Hayes, the MSNBC political host says about the publication.

I really like Jacobin — it’s very explicitly on the radical left, and sort of hostile to liberal accommodationism. [2] There’s a lot in there that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it’s bracingly rigorous and polemical in a really thought-provoking way. It’s a really well-done publication, almost preternaturally good.
— Chris Hayes, host of All In w/ Chris Hayes

From Hayes’s brief comment, I found a few clues that were helpful. Specifically, I found “rigorous and polemical” and “sort of hostile to liberal accommodationism”

Polemical: So I picture Luke Savage and his Jacobin colleagues watching TWW and looking for signs of hope. TWW is also “rigorous and polemical” but the thing about polemics is that if they don’t match your own polemics, they don’t sound reasonable. So that doesn’t necessarily help. In fact, as we will see below, it is the basis for explicit criticism sometimes.

Accommodationism. This is going to be a loser from the very beginning. The Bartlet administration had a government to run, after all, and a Republican Congress to entice into some minimum forms of cooperation.  If you don’t like cooperation, changing it to “accommodationism” is an easy step to take.

So let’s take some of Savage’s criticism’s from his Current Affairs article and see whether my placement of him on the ideological and programmatic left helps us make sense of his criticisms.

The West Wing is an elaborate fantasia founded upon the shibboleths that sustain Beltway liberalism and the milieu that produced them.

Wingnut 2I’d say there is no blood in that one at all. But it does launch some criticisms. “Fantasia” is not entirely clear, but the relationship with “fantasy” not at all obscured. And the fantasy is founded on “shibboleths” [3]—inside code words that establish membership. These same shibboleths sustain “Beltway liberalism.” By the way, “Beltway” is the adjective of death. Nothing good is modified by the adjective “Beltway.”

So there is a tight grouping of smears here, but no actual charges. Let’s go on.

In fact, after two terms in the White House, Bartlet’s gang of hyper-educated, hyper-competent politicos do not seem to have any transformational policy achievements whatsoever. Even in their most unconstrained and idealized political fantasies, liberals manage to accomplish nothing.

Now this one does have some blood in it. After two terms, Savage says, Bartlet’s gang of politicos does not seem to have any policy achievements at all.” He may be right about that one. During their time in office they passed budgets that protected some programs liberals like to protect. They left behind a Supreme Court with an appetite for constitutional issues. They prevented a lot of bad things from happening. But in the last episode, as the Bartlets are looking over the inauguration site, Abbey Bartlet says to her husband, “You did a lot of good, Jed. A lot of good.” From Savage’s perspective, that’s not much to say.

It’s a smugness born of the view that politics is less a terrain of clashing values and interests than a perpetual pitting of the clever against the ignorant and obtuse. The clever wield facts and reason, while the foolish cling to effortlessly-exposed fictions and the braying prejudices of provincial rubes.

“Smug” is one of the cheapest of slurs. In a whole article of slurs, it is probably the lowest. Note that the alternative presented is “clashing values and interests.” Savage has collected a great many of the opponents of the Bartlet administration into a category defined by ignorance and prejudice, rather than by any political position. This makes them victims of the attitudes of the Bartlets and their minions rather than people who fought for their own principles and lost. Savage can get away with that by oversampling the episodes that dealt with campaigning and paying much less attention to the episodes about governing the country.

Maybe just one more.

But if your values are procedural, based more on the manner in which people conduct themselves rather than the consequences they actually bring about, it’s easy to chuckle along with a hard-right conservative, so long as they are personally charming (Ziegler: “I hate him, but he’s brilliant. And the two of them together are fighting like cats and dogs … but it works.”)

The good position here—Savage’s position—is that political judgments should be based on “the consequences [that politics] actually brings about” rather than being merely procedural. The example he chose comes from “The Supremes,” (Season 5, Episode 17). The tension in that episode was the value of having a Supreme Court made of moderates, who simply kick the juridical can down the road a little, or one made up of constitutional architects who build the structures that lesser and later courts redecorate.

wingnut 4

This is an odd choice for Savage. It was the giants of the Court who extended the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to apply to actions taken by state legislatures; prominent jurists who stopped rewarding local police for evidence gathered illegally; daring justices who wrote the epitaph for “separate but equal.” It is decisions like these that the new Bartlet court, with its programmatic conservative anchor and its programmatic liberal anchor, will consider. You’d think even Savage would like that. And to dislike it, he is forced to call Judge Mulready (William Fichtner) “personally charming,” where the writers of the episode go out of their way to make him an irascible nerd. [4]

OK, enough carping. Savage ends his piece with this line:

But, in 2017, [the West Wing] is foremost a series of glittering illusions to be abandoned.

I can see why he feels that way, but I start from a different place, critically, and I think that only by electing White House ensembles like the Bartlet administration and backing them up with Congresses willing to take the hard votes, are we going to get anywhere at all. As I see it, it is Savage’s hankering for a hard programmatic turn to the left that is the illusion.

[1] I also, by way of a chatroom meeting, became a member of the doctoral committee for Melissa Crawley’s dissertation, which was subsequently published as Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on TV’s The West Wing. Dr. Crawley’s degree was authorized by a Department of Communications, but it is the best overall assessment of popular response to “politics as presented by the media” I have ever read.
[2] Accommodationism is not a familiar word in this context. The Wikipedia article, for instance, describes two settings where it has been used in American politics, neither of them anywhere near this usage. Still, it is not hard to see what Hayes means. The parties of the center are always condemned for accommodating themselves to injustice and economic misdeeds. As a rule, that is what you do when you are running a government split between liberal and conservative strongholds.
[3] One of the West Wing episodes was called “Shibboleth. “In it President Bartlet quotes the biblical passage that grounds it historically and declares that the Chinese Christian refugee in his office has just used “the shibboleth.” Season 2, Episode 8.
[4] With the sole exception of his hallway argument with Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) in which he gives Charlie a much better argument in favor of affirmative action than Charlie has ever heard before.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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