Rewatching The West Wing

I’ve been rewatching The West Wing over the last few months, in part to get the bad taste of The Newsroom out of my mouth. And because, in a presidential election year, I wanted to revisit the world of the Bartlet administration and see all these characters, and their setting, in a new light. If I was really dedicated, I could have paced seasons six and seven perfectly with the actual election schedule, but I’m not quite that determined, and I didn’t want to wait that long between episodes. The idea was to get into the general spirit of things, not mimic them exactly.

Something I’ve really been struck by over the course of this rewatch is the way in which the White House basically fell apart as the election got closer and closer. First it was the poaching of all the good staff as they wicked off to various campaigns, leaving the remaining staff without the support they needed to succeed and push things through to completion. A sort of abandoning ship, which Josh justified by saying that he was ‘thinking about the ninth year,’ but I don’t know if I quite buy that. As staffers rushed to follow campaigns, it felt like giving up on their accomplishments, something Toby bitterly felt as he was left juggling the projects Josh left behind.

And, of course, there was the turn towards campaigning over everything else, really brought home in the episode where Congress is about to vote on a stem cell measure and the Republicans are confident they’ll pass it because the Democrats are all out on the campaign trail. Watching people on the trail this year, I’ve been reminded yet again that while they seem to be spending a lot of time on public appearances, campaign stops, and other events, they don’t seem to be spending a lot of time doing what we elected them to do, which was governing and looking over the political process in this country.

I’m not really comfortable with electing someone who works for a few years and then spends a year or more campaigning, let alone paying that person’s salary. I elect officials to represent me and work in Washington and Sacramento to make sure my voice is heard and my interests are protected; that’s the tradeoff with a representative democracy like ours where it’s not workable for all of us to participate directly. When my people on the hill are off shaking hands and going to $20,000/plate dinners, what’s going on legislatively? Why is the business of government not as important as the business of getting elected?

The answers to that are complex and myriad, of course. We could talk about the rise in campaign spending and how people have to get more and more time out there to make sure people see them, know their names, and vote their way. We could talk about increasing demands from big-ticket donors to meet with candidates and get face time, and the need to cater to those donors to access critically needed funds for campaigns that only get more expensive in time. We could also talk about the outreach work done to educate constituents about what politicians do and could be doing for them. And we could talk about the long campaign cycle in the United States and how that contributes to the earlier and earlier start date for campaigns, especially Presidential ones.

But in the end, I tune in to NPR in the afternoons while I make dinner, and all I hear is a litany of campaign stops, while the world around me is going to pieces. Between reports on violence and unrest around the world, and the economy, and the climate, and so many other social issues, the press junkets and endless campaign tours start to grate on me. Sometimes there’s not anything a specific politician can do, or a particular place politicians could go to do the best work, but symbolism is important to me, and to other voters.

On The West Wing, I watched the staff flee the White House while politicians like Santos spent all their time on the trail, barely showing up for Congressional votes. And I wondered what the (hypothetical) people in their home districts felt like, if they experienced the same resentment I do over politicians who prioritise getting elected over the business of government. Yes, it’s true that if they don’t get elected, they can’t continue the business of government, but what price should voters have to pay to elect the candidates they want?

There are no easy solutions to the numerous problems with the electoral system in the United States. This isn’t something that can be easily dealt with by passing laws or getting politicians to commit to resolutions. But it is something that interests me, as someone who has long loved and been fascinated by the electoral process, as a voter, and as a resident of a country where sometimes, it feels like people start campaigning again almost as soon as they’re elected. It makes me wonder if some of the broken aspects of our political system can be traced back to this; since politicians constantly operate with one eye on the polls, clearly it has a profound impact on what they propose, how they vote on bills, and how they act in office.

Maybe if they only had one term, one shot to get this right, they’d give it their all and focus on being the best they could be for their constituents, instead of always thinking about the election.