Language and meaning are one area where American politics reveals its most significant deficit. It’s not a rare occurrence to see “man on the street” interviews wherein some reactionary calls Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi a “communist” or “socialist.” As someone with political leanings that actually are communist, I find this both funny and terrifying. And while the political illiteracy of the Right is blunt & obvious, the same aspect in liberals is there but subtler. It hasn’t been until recently that I have seen the actual depth of liberal depravity. They are rushing to join their reactionary brethren by joining the culture war distractions about transgender people and CRT. Instead of making arguments that bring attention back to the real problems (wage inequality, climate collapse), they do shadow plays about issues that will only lead to a fascistic response.
Aaron Sorkin is a neoliberal. So was Margaret Thatcher. So was Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton too. And Barack Obama. Neoliberalism is a political model that favors free-market capitalism, cutting government spending and deregulating industries. This ideology emerged in Europe during the 1930s, almost as a response to the strong socialist leanings of the populace experiencing the effects of capitalism running rampant during the Depression and post-WWI period. This toxic model of operating society was seen writ large in Pinochet’s Chile, with wild deregulation that resulted in mass suffering and a collapse of services. These policies are currently implemented in places like Texas, whose deregulation of the energy grid led to instances of outright death during the catastrophic winter of 2021.
Neoliberalism favors discarding lessons that could be learned by studying history, viewing society as a machine that will simply run forever if the correct technocrats are put in positions of power. It’s why neoliberalism in America is rapidly moving the nation towards a total collapse into fascism, unable to address the struggles of the working class and poor, turning them into the perfect targets of supremacist ideology that offer them a target to punch down on rather than overturning the power structures that led to the current misery.
Let Bartlet Be Bartlet
Original airdate: 26 April 2000
Written by Peter Parnell, Patrick Caddell, and Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Laura Innes
A memo has gotten to the press. This memo was written by current Bartlet cabinet member Dr. Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), a media consultant. She wrote this when working for one of Bartlet’s opponents, but it is damaging nonetheless. It shows a potential liability within the administration and provides Bartlet’s rivals on capitol hill essentially have a playbook. Meanwhile, Sam (Rob Lowe) is meeting with military representatives about changing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and meeting resistance. Two spots on the FCC have opened up, so Bartlet wants to push nominees for his party to support in Congress. Josh (Bradley Whitford) is sent to meet with the leadership, and they threaten to create problems for the President if he pushes his people on them. This all culminates in a blow-up between Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), where they attempt to reorient the direction of this presidency.
This episode doesn’t put its problems front and center; they are subplot elements. But first, the Sam storyline ends in the most perfect Sorkin ways. There is clear resistance from the military to allowing LGBTQ people to openly serve. This gets an about-face when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (played by John Amos) passes through the White House on other matters and reminds them not too long ago, a Black man like him was considered unlikely to serve in the position he does now. It’s a good point, not super-effective if you’re dealing with people who find white supremacy reasonable, but a good point. Then Sam delivers a perfectly worded speech, entirely off the cuff, that shames these bigoted soldiers. There’s the unrealistic nature of speaking the way Sam does without sitting down and writing out multiple drafts. Even worse is the idea being seeded here that the people you are in conflict with argue from the point of good faith. In the Sorkin world, even the worst people argue in good faith and can be shot down by a speech only a wonderful technocrat can deliver. It’s embarrassingly simplistic, an adolescent understanding of political discourse in America.
Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) is a character I haven’t addressed yet. She has got to be one of the most comically offensive women I’ve ever seen in a piece of television. At this point in the series, she’s Sr. Assistant to Josh. Oh yes, they are also dating and fucking. No power imbalance or anything? Okay. Donna’s only reason for existing in The West Wing is to be concerned for Josh (we’ll see that a lot in the next episode) or act as an exposition delivery device. Most women in the Sorkinverse appear only to outline the current situation and fill the audience in with details. Then they vanish into the background, so all the important white men get their hands dirty dealing with the problem. In this episode, Donna, a grown adult, asks Josh how the FEC works. From a story writing pov, this is a way to fill members of the audience in who may not know. However, within the in-universe reality of the show, it makes Donna appear to be a moron who is working in the White House. Now, I think that most of the ambitious brown-nosing sycophants that get to the White House are a type of functional moron. However, you would hope when given artistic license, you could make characters working in the White House aware of how the government functions.
This episode’s core conflict, Mandy’s memo, is also presented strangely. CJ (Alison Janney) is the main person to confront Mandy, admonishing her for having written this. But Mandy didn’t do anything wrong. She was working for someone else and asked to write a memo for that employer. The “good” characters imply she was irresponsible for not destroying every trace of the memo or that she was wrong for writing it in the first place. But Mandy is not the character given the worst treatment in this episode; that belongs to poor Margaret.
Margaret Hooper (Nicole Robinson) is the Sr. Assistant to the Chief of Staff. In this episode, she is caught up in email problems happening inside the White House. This subplot is presented as comic relief from the serious stories the men are involved in. Her interaction with male staff members is composed of her being “ditzy” and cuts to exasperated reactions from them. She rambles about her friends and then segues into talking about the calories in the muffins she’s been eating. It is a perfect example of minimizing women’s concerns as wholly frivolous and unimportant. You could easily have swapped her out for a quirky male character, but no, this could only be a woman in Sorkin’s world.
For a brief moment, I thought maybe this email subplot would tie back to the leaked memo. This makes so much sense from a dramatic point of view. It’s a plot that seems unimportant and becomes the key to solving the core problem. But nope, this is total filler. Throughout the episode, major assholes like McGarry and Toby are constantly eye-rolling or attempting to avoid “crazy” Mandy and her worthless & inane ramblings. Peak Sorkin as a misogynist, just no other way to describe it.
In The Shadow of Two Gunmen
Original airdate: 4 October 2000
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
This season two premiere picks up right where the first season ended. An assassination attempt was made on Bartlet, and the characters are being taken by Secret Service from the scene. It turns out the President was hit and is rushed to a hospital. Josh is discovered a few yards away on the edge of consciousness and badly wounded. At the White House, the staff scrambles to keep things functional while Vice President John Hynes (Tim Matheson) tries to steer the ship. The First Lady (Stockard Channing) and Bartlet’s daughter (Elizabeth Moss) hang around the hospital while waiting for word on the President’s condition. We learn in the cold open of the second hour that the assassins were part of a white supremacist cell targeting Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), an assistant to the chief of staff who is also dating the President’s daughter.
Dulé Hill’s addition to the West Wing cast was a decision made after the first pilot. The first episode of the West Wing was about as white as a Buy 1 Get 1 Free Mayonnaise Day at the supermarket. Even the NAACP complained about how white the highest level of American government, was being portrayed in the series. So they added Charlie, and it was a bold decision to make him the President’s daughter’s boyfriend. The fact that white supremacists made an attempt on his life and ended up wounding the President and a member of his cabinet should be a season-long plot point, in my opinion. What a chance to really profoundly explore this. Well, you’ll probably need to wait on that one. After seeing the swastika tattooed third man in the assassination plot get arrested by federal agents at the top of the second hour, it is never addressed again in any meaningful way. In the following episodes, Bartlet and Josh’s health will be mentioned for a while, but the White House never directly deals with the more significant threat of white supremacy this implies.
That’s a very neoliberal sentiment. Francis Fukuyama, one of the prominent voices on modern neoliberalism, expressed in his book The End of History that this particular view sees history as an evolutionary process. Liberal democracy is thus defined by neoliberalism as the final form of human ideology, the pinnacle, and nothing can form beyond that. Fukuyama, under further scrutiny, seems to believe the American form of liberal democracy is the best possible of all forms, an idea that I would hope we could agree has not panned out well in the 21st century when examining how successfully this form has been forcibly imported into nations that never asked for it. The existence of governments is a necessary annoyance to these people, which must be sustained so that those who pull the levers of corporate power can be buoyed up when disaster strikes. This leads to a complete disinterest in examining the historicity of elements in culture.
That distortion is seen in iconic cultural figures who are distorted into corporate-friendly facsimiles of themselves. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a perfect example of this neoliberal-fication of history. The MLK pushed in schools is one who just wanted everyone to get along and be friends. This removes the reality that he was reviled by most white people during his life. It also ignores his progression into socialist ideology and how MLK successfully articulated the intersections of race and poverty in America at the time of his murder. Helen Keller is another example who, because of the success of the Miracle Worker, is seen as the inspirational story of a child learning to communicate with the world. You will never enter an American classroom where her strong communist beliefs are discussed, at least in no meaningful way, if they are even brought up. Not addressing systemic racism and the deep roots of white supremacy in America is the exact path I would expect Aaron Sorkin to journey down.
This two-hour season premiere also includes flashbacks of Josh’s journey to becoming a part of the Bartlet campaign and administration. The main hook here is that Josh is searching for something of meaning, and it turns out to be Bartlet. The moment happens when, during a town hall in New Hampshire, the former governor “talks straight” with a farmer about a position he took on the dairy industry and explains he had to come down on the side that supports children in need of food rather than the demands of corporations. It’s an admirable stance, and the show presents it as a rare thing from an American politician. But, of course, no American politician would speak so eloquently off the cuff in such an interaction. Instead, they would become petrified by thoughts of the opposing demographics involved in the question and try to answer it without answering it. We can look to real-life examples of politicians talking straight and see that they are pilloried by their own parties and the media. Dennis Kunich has always been a sore spot for me as an actually decent Democrat who was mocked by his party. Bernie Sanders is another marginalized figure who spoke honestly and was sidelined. In real life, only those politicians who kiss corporate ass make any headway. We should never forget that the DNC and RNC are private corporations that aren’t expected to adhere to honesty in their primary process. Letting us vote for their candidates is merely a nicety they allow us. The West Wing is a fantasy world built on decades of very effective propaganda about how the government works. I can’t wait to watch more!