Current TV shows about politics are hopelessly cynical. House of Cards is the most obvious example, but even satirical takes like Veep display a certain dismissive attitude toward government. It seems that every politician, civil servant, and bureaucrat is either a corrupt sociopath or a completely incompetent idiot.
In the original British House of Cards, Francis Urquhart (the British Frank Underwood) represents a categorically different evil from the normal dysfunction of government. In the American House of Cards, Frank Underwood is similarly malevolent, but instead of standing out as a unique villain, he embodies the inherent moral corruption of the political system. This theme is increasingly reinforced as the seasons progress and the show’s roster of Machiavellians expands.
In Veep, stupidity accompanies corruption and self-interest. The overall theme of the show is that the entire political system is an arbitrary mess and there is no hope for the integrity of democracy. This goes beyond the standard trope that government bureaucrats are inevitably inept and questions the legitimacy of basic American institutions from the separation of powers to the legitimacy of elections.
In case you think I’m taking a comedy show that puts Elaine from Seinfeld in the Oval Office too seriously, let me say that I actually enjoy Veep and even think it makes some good points. The problem is that satirical takes like Veep, as well as cynical ones like House of Cards, have become the dominant and even definitive attitude which popular culture adopts toward politics.
In contrast, shows like The West Wing treat politics seriously. First airing in 1999 and ending in 2006, The West Wing feels like it was filmed in an entirely different era. Its seriousness is not melodramatic (although The West Wing is guilty of featuring plotlines worthy of a soap opera) but rather philosophical. The characters of The West Wing earnestly believe in public service, the importance of civil and often contentious discourse, and the ultimate effectiveness and durability of American government. The West Wing treats the American political system with a sincerity that includes criticism, but decidedly rejects cynicism.
For a show whose protagonists are members of a Democratic administration, The West Wing is remarkably even-handed. Nearly every episode of The West Wing deals with the most thorny ethical and political issues, and even when the tone of the show makes it clear which side the writers’ room prefers, the opposing viewpoint is extended the service of allowing a full debate—campaign finance law, the use of military force, the role of religion in public life, and the boundaries of executive authority are among the many topics which receive this kind of attention.
The West Wing’s political bias most strongly manifests in its characters. The president and his staff are uniformly intelligent, passionate, and progressive, and their political opponents are often less so. The most prominent example of this is the character of Robert Ritchie, the Republican Governor of Florida who runs against President Bartlet and whose hyperbolic bravado, anti-elitism, and outright stupidity are meant to parody President George W. Bush. However, the show also features Arnold Vinick, a Goldwater-esque Republican Senator from California who displays intellectual seriousness, selflessness, and patriotism.
In its depiction of both the characters and the content of their political debates, The West Wing clearly leans left, but not without giving its ideological opponents genuine consideration. In fact, the way The West Wing engages with deeply controversial and inherently partisan questions while maintaining a measure of balance is a kind of model for today’s civic discourse. The characters of The West Wing argue, shout, and occasionally insult each other, but they generally do so while assuming both sides come from a place of good faith.
The schmaltz of The West Wing should not be the definitive lense through which our culture views our politics. We need satire as well as sympathy, a healthy dose of realistic negativity to counter nostalgia, and pragmatism to balance out idealism. However, today’s popular culture and television programming has drifted too far to one side; there are too many House of Cards and Veep derivatives and too few West Wing imitations.
Satire and skepticism are absolutely essential components of a democratic culture, but if they become the primary means by which popular culture addresses politics, then they risk eroding public trust in our system and ultimately the system itself.
A distinction also has to be made between the institutions themselves and the specific politicians and policies that are associated with the institutions. Satirizing a certain politician or policy is quite different than holding public service, democratic elections, and the overall political system in contempt.
Trust in American institutions is at an all-time low, and I am not suggesting another weekly drama by Aaron Sorkin will fix this problem. Ironically, his latest show, The Newsroom, itself fell victim to smug pessimism and felt completely foreign to The West Wing, even if they share the same idiosyncratic Sorkin dialogue. Rather than giving us a comprehensive view of the political system or functioning as an ideological guide, fictional shows about politics serve as crystallized examples of how popular culture reflects our attitudes toward politics.
The West Wing may be overly idealistic and naive, but its spirit of respect for the American political system is deeply lacking in our current culture and in our Netflix queues.
JP Gschwind is a senior from Redding, Connecticut majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. Please contact him at email@example.com to tell him why Scandal is the best political drama of all time.