In the wake of the disaster of Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency, it’s more than a little tempting to retreat into political fictions to criticize the president-elect and to imagine rosier alternatives. As the Democratic Party and its adherents struggle to regain their footing after an election that poised the GOP to undo much of Barack Obama’s legacy, reshape the American judiciary, and placed conservatives no fewer than two legislative seats away from the ability to amend the Constitution, it’s easy to indulge narratives that inflate the virtue and potential of the nation’s establishment leftists.
This is, of course, a mistake. It does little to address the deluge of problems and social traumas that Trump administration will all but certainly inflict on the nation that propelled it to power, and it ultimately avoids the truth of how liberals have spent decades tacitly enabling and excusing the forces that shape this current moment (and have indeed shaped the worst aspects of America’s impressively horrible history), such as respectability politics and white saviorism. Certainly, it’s almost as useless to state this and move on, since--while these concepts are frighteningly and frustratingly familiar to a large number of Americans--they are foreign to many, who upon encountering them might rebrand them in a far more positive light. Luckily, popular culture has provided the population with a relatively thorough primer to the self-aggrandizing failures of mainstream white liberalism--from its refusal to actually listen to or make room for the voices of those it claims to empower, to its inability to see its stumbling as anything but righteous. Though this bible (if you will) of all the ways “well-meaning” white Democrats have turned their fight into less of a bold crusade for justice and more of a when-it’s-convenient road trip towards the moral high ground is often wholly unaware of what it’s ultimately illustrating, its contemporary popularity among audiences and critics and its puzzling retention of respect and (for some) worship only further underscores the potency of the fantasies it diagrams so gleefully. In many ways, it’s an informal Idiot’s Guide to the breed of white liberalism that I find myself so disgusted with as of late. You’ve most likely heard of it. It’s called The West Wing.
Broadcast on NBC from 1999 to 2006, The West Wing is the brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, self-proclaimed screenwriting wunderkind and a sort of Vestal Virgin for the concept of “the Great White Man.” The latter is not a new criticism of Sorkin, whose tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for his own rhetorical masturbation (which much like regular masturbation is composed of some pretty blatant repetition) came under heavy fire with the debut of his most recent television show The Newsroom, which deigned to appear on HBO from 2012 to 2014 in order to explain to viewers the exact failures of journalism (from what I gathered it had equal parts to do with shameless executives and overly emotional women). Sorkin clearly saw this latest blessing as something akin to Jesus Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the world, even if it quickly became clear that the experience of actually viewing an episode of that show was decidedly more Old Testament: sadistic, droning, and containing all the actorly subtlety of a Charlton Heston performance.
Still, The West Wing has largely been able to avoid the criticism that rightfully greeted The Newsroom, a fact which can probably be contributed to both the caliber of its ensemble and the fact that it established its reputation before awareness of the concepts that might have deflated its hype entered the so-called mainstream. Which is a shame because it seems that Sorkin’s magnum opus (I hope my use of Latin here will lend my opinions some authority should the showrunner happen to stumble across this while Googling his name) has reinforced some of the most dangerous and self-promotional delusions of white liberals (particularly men) through its assumed position in the canon of “great television.” In fact, it’s quite easy to see clear echoes of what many have begun to criticize in social and cultural discourse blatantly lionized over the program’s seven season run. It should be no surprise that popular culture shapes and legitimizes elements of society, plucking ideas and agendas from the social ether and depositing them into the laps of people who might have otherwise not encountered them were they to remain in the esoteric spheres of professionals and academics. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see how The West Wing is responsible for shaping popular conceptions of political righteousness for modern Americans--specifically a vision of righteousness that (while perhaps not intentionally) is fundamentally white.
For those who are somehow unfamiliar with the general conceit of Sorkin’s major network treatise on American government, the setup is pretty simple: a look inside the West Wing, where the President and his aides navigate the political and moral collision course of democracy, empowered with the sort of dialogue that might make a Joss Whedon script feel organic. Foremost is Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet (who a West Wing fan will always inevitably explain was never supposed to be a regular character), a Nobel-winner and former governor of New Hampshire whose eloquence, earnestness, optimism, charisma, and intellectual horsepower often make him read like less of a character and more like a Tumblr ‘ship of iconic Democratic executives. He’s not infallible but none of his character flaws ever feel catastrophic or all that morally troubling. If he ever comes off as bloviating or condescending, the program makes sure to have other characters run damage control while still assuring the viewer that what Bartlet said was kinda true anyway.
Most definitive of The West Wing and Sorkin’s writing in general is its monologues, which are unfailingly pointed and rehearsed: a parade of statistics and zingers that never feel quite like character moments. Egotist that Sorkin is, he might even be willing to argue that he invented “mansplaining,” and the show would actually make a damn fine case for it. Whether facing down ambivalent allies or hardened adversaries, Sorkin’s leads never fail to come out on top, offering up deluges of silencing rhetoric that announce why the position being favored could only be opposed by an idiot or a monster, often doing so with such mind-numbing self-satisfaction that a listener starts to way the ups and downs of maybe just being an idiot and a monster after all. These pontifications almost always resemble the sort of eviscerations that get thrown around on Facebook as though they were some sort of unbeatable trump card: the golden snitch of slacktivism. They exist less to share an idea or convince an audience than as a sort of intellectual flexing, concerned less with the substance or impact of the words than with how those words might make their speaker (and so, Sorkin) look. Have you ever seen American Psycho? You know that scene where Christian Bale is fucking the two sex workers but just posing for a video camera and looking at himself in the mirror the whole time? Well, now you get the idea.
The West Wing seems wholly oblivious to this, both in how regularly and how heavy-handedly it leans on these moments. They’re not nearly unique among Sorkin’s work (see The American President or The Newsroom), but they’re certainly at their purest and most absurd when delivered by Bartlet and company. It’s easy to imagine the clickbait headlines that might accompany them, declaring how deftly President Josiah Bartlet just eviscerated the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit on Their own turf, carefully citing all the facts that God didn’t have on hand at the time (if you ever wanted to see a man unironically brag about creating new jobs to the King of Kings, I can’t recommend this show highly enough) before essentially claiming that God doesn’t deserve such a good president, and that He’ll have to settle for the cut-rate sucker who’s opposing our main character. I cannot stress enough that this scene both exists and is held in high esteem.
Of course, I don’t think that most white liberals spend their days telling God to get on their level, achievement-wise, but the fact remains that this sort of monologuing is very much en vogue among a certain sect of Democrats (Keith Olbermann, I am convinced, is living his life in West Wing cosplay). This certainty of righteousness that employs a sort of vindictive condescension, a shameless self-centering in the political (and, for Sorkin, metaphysical) universe.
Right now, I imagine (if you’re still with me) that you’ve begun to take issue with my stressing of whiteness again and again, although I have yet to explain what’s ultimately so terminally white about the liberalism on display here. Well, don’t you worry. I had no intention of denying you the pleasure.
Now, as with most television, The West Wing is an overwhelmingly white show. It’s an overwhelmingly male show. It’s an overwhelmingly straight show. Certainly, it openly tackles the demons of racism and misogyny and (to a certain degree) homophobia, but in all of these cases it is certain to either center the discussion around its straight white men, or to at least make them central agents in the conflict. This leads to a lot of straight white men explaining why racism is bad or sexism is bad or homophobia is unChristian, with very little attention paid to the voices of the people who actually suffer these evils, who have to contend with them daily, whose investment in their eradication or terror over their endurance is less a question of moral frustration but physical and spiritual well-being. Certainly, it’s by no means bad to have a white character or a male character or a straight character who’s opposed to oppression, but it has become tedious far quicker than men like Sorkin realize to tell stories about how these individuals will have to whether the storm of systemic and institutionalized hatred. So, while it might be easy to feel empowered by watching Martin Sheen tear into some Christian fundamentalists about their hypocrisy, American social history has also brought us to a place where it’s obnoxious to see allyship enshrined as an exceptional virtue as opposed to expected as a basic qualifier of decency. If your argument is that it’s still a good thing to have a popular show so unabashedly stand for these values, that The West Wing’s dedication to liberal visions of equality is a force for empathy, I would simply counter: 1) would that empathy not be far more deeply instilled by building upon the voices of those for whom these experiences are daily reality and 2) how deep and potent is empathy really if it can only be mustered for these sorts of causes secondhand, when they are relayed by someone whose value we are already certain to assume.
The other fundamentally white component of Sorkin’s vision here is its unflinching faith in America: its people, its institutions, its capacity to fight the evils that breach the surface from time to time. Even though The West Wing is willing to address these evils with a fair amount of candor, its seeming certainty that such things do not and should not irreparably damage our love of country is a deeply white perspective, and one that media in general has failed to honestly contend with in the last year. The notion that racism and misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia and transphobia, hatred of Muslims and Jews and the disabled are bugs in the system and not “features” (which is to say that they were unintentional side effects, not ideas inherent to the code of the this country) is one that white liberalism has failed to shake. Instead it appears again and again under new and different qualifiers: that these ideas are simply not American, that patriotism involves holding one’s country to a higher standard. There is little mainstream entertainment of the idea that the ongoing conception of America is dishonest and structurally corrupt, that this country has not yet earned the love of a large portion of its citizenry and that they should not be expected to give the nation or its institutions the benefit of the doubt. You can see it throughout politics, as Democrats profess love of country just as effusively as Republicans, and white liberals employ respectability politics as casually as conservatives as they criticize people of color who dare question the institutions of the country, as opposed to simply question the ugly ideas with which these institutions are shot through, and which they continually empower. This sudden defensiveness is deeply tied to Sorkin’s refusal to indulge the idea that America is not fundamentally decent. It informs the knee-jerk criticism of anyone who implies that America is racist as opposed to that racists are racist and their population density in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is startling and coincidental. It’s not difficult to understand this reaction. To entertain the notion that America is elementally racist is to suggest that Americans might be as well, which is to put oneself in proximity to racism in such a way that muddies the notion of the liberal as one of the “good” white people, who would absolutely never (never ever ever ever) engage in or tolerate that malarkey. It’s hard to be the Great White Hope when you got dirt under your fingernails. Unfortunately for the fantasy of the Great White Hope, it’s also hard not to have dirty hands when you’re playing in dirt.
It’s not hard to see the problems here if you let go of the assumption that you’re certainly not a part of them, a precondition that Sorkin’s vision of executive purpose is wholly unwilling to part with. The result is a document that, in the process of trying to set an example of virtue, refuses to engage in the sort of self-critical work that’s a prerequisite for any meaningful model of righteousness: the difficult and humbling acknowledgment that certainty of one’s own decency and benevolence is the surest sign that that vision of decency has been compromised, that it’s a mode of self-service rather than true civic engagement. And this is the fatal flaw of white liberalism: the certainty of being on the right side of history, and the establishment of what that right side will be by mapping the terrain on which one currently stands. It’s a philosophy of self-praise as opposed to self-examination; of lecturing as opposed to listening; of setting an agenda of inclusivity that’s based on the continued privileging of a majority voice, on giving racial equality and progress a white face. The West Wing offers a distillation of this masturbatory fantasia, and a neat itinerary of all of the problems that liberals must stand up and address amongst themselves if they’re serious about accomplishing what they say they truly want. Much is made about the left’s smugness, its reliance on supposedly academic jargon, and its contempt for the uneducated or the uncultured. Though there is a kernel of truth here, it is often manipulated, twisted into a narrative that continues to privilege whiteness, currently the whiteness that exists outside of the supposed coastal bubble. Where the smugness truly lies--as The West Wing so beautifully and unintentionally demonstrates--is not in liberal contempt for bigots both intentional and unintentional or for ignorance and small-mindedness, but in the white liberal refusal to indulge the possibility that good intentions make saints of their possessors, that claiming to want the best is virtue enough, that there is no legitimate narrative in which they are part of a social problem. The loss, then, is not the repulsion of potential votes from racists and xenophobes and white nationalists who feel left behind by diversity and globalism, but in an ultimate inability to understand the true stakes of the social battles ahead, and thus an inability to fight them with the tooth-and-nail fervor that’s necessary. All this results in is impotent and self-congratulatory outrage: the fatal discompassionate confusion of righteous anger and simple self-righteousness.