Aaron Sorkin and the Poisoning of the American Political Imagination

In light of recent political upheaval, Gavin Tracey rails against many people’s favourite political drama, created by and for liberals.

In every American community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. 

-Phil Ochs


In the age of Trump, American liberals have decided to react in the only manner in which they can; by collectively losing their minds. The 2016 election demonstrated all of the flaws that go along with liberalism, from their failure to meaningfully address real problems and leaving a vacuum for a right-wing populist like Trump to fill. So, what do liberals want? What does the world look like in their imaginations? 

Look no further than The West Wing; the wildly popular American television show that ran from 1999 until 2006. Written by Aaron Sorkin, it came as a response to the last years of the Clinton administration, an imagined White House staffed by well meaning people, trying their best to make America a better place. As it spilled into the 21st century, it became a refuge for American liberals in the age of George Bush, an escape from the fact they had been rendered politically insignificant. It is liberalism as it views itself, a fantasia of compromise, a wet dream of moral superiority and smugness, and possibly the most damaging piece of American media to be created since Birth of a Nation. 

The core issue with The West Wing is in its politics, and the way in which it imagines that politics is done. In Sorkin’s imagined world, all that is required for meaningful political action to be undertaken is simply to put the right people in charge. President Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president cum pater familias of the show, is a Nobel prize winning, Latin quoting, quick witted “smart guy” - he is what you would get if you asked for a dumb person’s idea of a smart person. Surrounding him are equally irritating “smart guys”, whose entire existence consists of winning arguments with Republicans, writing speeches, and hurling abuse and belittling their female secretaries. 

The show is punctuated by watershed speeches, full of soaring rhetoric, usually with swelling orchestral music playing underneath, as scores of teary eyed people watch on. Speeches are the primary factor for instigating political change in the universe of The West Wing, speeches that are so phenomenal that even the most staunch Republicans are won over by them. Sorkin’s mythological Republican perhaps the most fantastical creation ever placed into a fictional world. They are unrecognisable when compared to the actual Republican party, willing to compromise and operating in good faith.

And what are the signature achievements of a fictional two term liberal administration? Well, not much, except for putting an extreme right-wing judge on the supreme count in the name of bi-partisanship, crafting a free trade deal that screws over farmers, and cutting social security. Even in their dreams liberals can’t help but completely screw things up and lurch to the right, it’s integral to their ideology that they can’t stop compromising, even when it’s themselves they’re compromising with.  

I hear the arguments forming from those among you who like The West Wing, and complain about those who politicise art. First of all, it’s a show about politics, so Sorkin started it. Secondly, it is vital to understand the real world implications this show has had on many political operatives, not to mention a whole swathe of upper middle class liberals who have had their brains irreparably warped by Sorkin. These are people who think problems can be solved by speaking like their favourite TV president. 

Many Obama staffers spoke in 2008 about their love for the show, and it really becomes apparent when one examines the Obama administration. It was peak West Wing, full of rousing speeches, attempts at bi-partisanship, and even a cameo from the fictitious press secretary CJ Cregg at an actual White House press briefing. Staffers were met with a Republican party that refused to compromise on anything. Turns out rhetoric and bi-partisanship don’t work outside of TV land. 

The real world effects go well beyond the Obama administration however. Pete Buttigeig is an ardent fan of the show; which makes sense seeing as how he has built his entire pitch for being president on the premise of him being a Sorkinesque wunderkind. Joe Biden has a former cast member campaigning for him, invoking his ties to The West Wing while doing so. 

As the US hurtles its way through the 21st century, crumbling and fracturing into smaller and smaller factions, The West Wing is the swan song of an empire in decline, the final rush of DMT into the brain of a sclerotic, dying populace. When historians look back upon the ruined and ancient culture of the 20th century, they will sift through and piece together what they can, and there’s no doubt that Aaron Sorkin will appear, right alongside Leni Riefenstahl and D. W. Griffith.