December 4, 2022

John Thompson: Lessons from The West Wing

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Binge-watching 22 year-old reruns of The West Wing, I recalled the first time we watched it in a government class. I worried about the speed of the show’s witty and complex dialogue. For instance, when Toby, who my students called “My Man Toby,” was meeting with Big Pharma corporate leaders, I could barely keep up with the exchange over the lower prices that Norwegians paid for erectile dysfunction drugs, in comparison to the impossibly high prices imposed on Africans seeking AIDS treatments. Toby argued that drug companies care more about their profits than the lives of Africans.

As our classes always did when watching something on TV, we’d stop after crucial scenes and discuss the main ideas. When there was a second confrontation between Toby and the corporate executives, I hoped for evidence that the class really understood the issues, not just the punch lines. I didn’t have long to wait. Immediately after the businessman responded to “My man, Toby,” the student leader of this class discussion proclaimed, “They say Africans can’t handle AIDS medicine. Why not ask if Norwegians can handle their erections?”

In the resulting conversations, just like the other discussions about powerful West Wing scenes, my “inner city” students demonstrated their sophisticated grasp of complicated and interrelated social, economic, and political issues.

What would have happened if adult Americans responded equally well to the challenges and opportunities explored by the series? And what if those sorts of masterpieces were allowed back into classrooms?

It was great watching President Bartlett’s brilliant staff leave their high-paying, but unfulfilling corporate jobs, that supported the elites whose uncontrolled corporate powers were undermining democracy. Back then, I was impressed with the humor in what I assumed were exaggerated critiques of bipartisan hubris. Now those scenes hit doubly hard; they illustrate how progressives’ egos set back efforts to control the super-rich, while enraging the populists who would become the MAGA Republicans’ base. But, more importantly, the series warned us of the range of threats that uncontrolled corporate power was unleashing.

The West Wing began with racist and anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi violence, that along with Christian Nationalism, racism, and anti-immigrant prejudice, would propel Trumpism.  It also criticized the Democrats who were slow to recognize and resist those authoritarian threats. Similarly, it shows what could have happened if Democrats played hardball as well as the Republicans did. For instance, conservatives were quick to misrepresent crimes, such as drug use by people of color. The West Wing shows what could have happened if progressives had blown the whistle on politicians who got their sons and daughters off, consequence-free, for behaviors that would have sent poor youth of color to prison.

Similarly, The West Wing presciently warned about rightwingers trying to take over school boards and other local offices that Democrats ignored. Conversely, it showed the way that Christian Nationalist “dog whistles” sold the idea that pro-choice women were “bad,” while distinguishing between those anti-democratic propagandists and sincere “pro-Life” Christians. The problem with those people who were sincerely opposed to abortion, like the true believers in the “Free Market,” was that they collaborated with anti-democratic racists. The West Wing was prescient in warning that these polarized tribes increasingly placed winning as #1, and then teamed up with neo-Fascists.

The West Wing battles sometimes concluded with real victories, or defeats that issued dire warnings about growing threats, but usually with ambiguities.  The narratives mostly ended with the words, “What’s next?”

First, we need to share The West Wing’s insights into how today’s dangers are products of the inter-connected tragedies and threats we haven’t addressed. Although it’s much harder today, we must contemplate the program’s call for conversations with our opponents. (How we do it, I don’t know.) We can’t can’t wait until students go to college in order to teach civics, debate, and critical thinking. We need a cross-cultural campaign against “alt facts,” hate speech, and polarization on social media. And each step along the way, we must think through victories, defeats, and ambiguities, and then ask, “What’s next?”

In doing so, of course, we especially need to listen to “My Man, Toby.”

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