TV Review from the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
The West Wing arrived from America as a successful US television show depicting life behind the scenes in the White House, setting out to show the way the White House really works, the “so far unrevealed dedication of these hitherto unpublicised workers and their efforts to keep the president and presidential office functioning”. As a show it is fast, slick, articulate and witty. It is highly watchable TV. Does it tell you anything about the reality behind the scenes other than the exact reproductions (we are assured) of the White House interior and furniture? You would be very unwise to believe much, if anything of the relationships shown or of the presidency. It's highly glamorised fiction designed to bolster the image of the presidency and reassure an American public that this is how democracy works. As such it is merely another example of the age-old myth surrounding the beneficent presence of the great in power. Yes Minister it ain't. But it is very cleverly done.
The staff come across as warm, caring and intensely loyal to the president in whom there is absolutely no trace of a Nixon, a Kennedy, a Reagan or a Clinton or in fact to any president going back to George Washington. This president has no faults other than a few endearing minor characteristics. And he is educated: he reads Latin!
But credibility is sought by having his staff display recognisable human weaknesses from time to time. The president's adviser and close personal friend has been disclosed as a recovered alcoholic and drug addict (nothing more potent than Valium) and has to come clean. The president himself has been revealed as a long-term sufferer from Multiple Sclerosis which he never let on to even his closest friend because he wanted to be president so much. This is about the extent of any flaws revealed so far. Not a sign of sleaze anywhere. As Queen Victoria would have said, “So unlike our own dear parliament.”
More credible is the way that government is shown to work by balancing minority interests one against another. To stay in power it doesn't pay to upset too many people, especially if they represent big business interests. The president is shown as being bitterly opposed to owning guns (by ordinary people that it, not by his armed forces) and he has to use all sorts of pressures and trade all sorts of offers to get his Bill through Congress. It starts to get unbelievable when at the last minute he has to revoke his nearly final appointment of a Supreme Court judge when it's discovered that the judge does not support the right of the individual to keep their private life private and to not allow such devices as bugging to have the force of law. Oh horror! This contravenes the Constitution as laid down by the founding fathers and cannot be allowed. The whole team is shocked, and a last minute substitute (who just happens to be Mexican) is appointed. Similar liberal sentiments abound and one gets the feeling that there is an element of propagandising in all this in an attempt to teach the American public how to think.
It is not only in the USA of course that the role of government is believed to be that of looking after the people who vote for them. It is probable that most people believe that that is what government is for and they record a vote acting under such a belief. It is even possible that there are politicians who believe this and they try to act accordingly. This is a delusion the reality being that government throughout the capitalist world acts to maintain capitalism and usually tries to favour the interests of one group of capitalist interests. Even given the remote possibility that a government may be elected that genuinely tries to represent the majority the realities of administering a market system soon teaches them otherwise. The idea that things go wrong just because politicians are corrupt is too simplistic and leads to the conclusion if only we can get this lot out and another lot in who are honest, things might get better. This is the “if only” attitude and can never work, not because there will never be any honest politicians but because politicians are unable to change the system. A properly-run society – socialism – must be brought about and run by the majority, from below, and can never be imposed from the top, just as capitalism, a system that is constructed to serve the interests of the few, can never serve the interests of the many.
And of course in a land where to run for president, or any public office can cost millions in campaigning and where those millions mostly come from those who have millions, the priority obligation of the president, and his government is to pay back those millionaire supporters. In other words the function of government in the US just as in all governments wherever they are to serve the interests of a class, the capitalist class. The West Wing is romanticised wish fulfilment fantasy, feeding the desire to believe that somehow, somewhere, someone up there is looking after us. A dangerous belief, but it can be interesting viewing to see just how they manipulate us.