American politics both tragedy and farce



The hardworking staff of Spoiler Alerts have written extensively about the war in Ukraine – 15 columns in the last month. In the coming weeks, the staff will produce many more chronicles on the most pressing crisis in world politics.

Today, however, I would like to take a short break and write about a meaningless but aggravating poll.

This week, Ipsos published the results of his survey after asking Americans which TV shows best captured real-life American politics. Their results? “The public feels west wing is more realistic than comedies, like Veep and Parks and recreation.”

How can I best express my reaction to this information?

Full disclosure: This result was triggering. “The West Wing” has its strengths: it gave good jokes. Compared to most political shows, it put a bit of effort into the plausibility of how the political process works.

The problems with “The West Wing,” however, are legion. Aaron Sorkin’s faith in “big talk” political theory makes sense for narrative purposes, but is wildly unrealistic. Equally bad is the belief that the smartest, best-read guy always wins in political negotiations.

[Fun fact: I remember the one moment when I had a “West Wing”-like exchange in a policy context. I was attending a meeting in which national security folks were consulting with outside experts. Some private-sector dude was trying to impress participants by making a somewhat obscure reference to sound erudite. As it happened, I had read the essay he had referenced and realized he had badly misread it. I interjected and explained that it actually said the opposite of what he had claimed. The effect of this exchange on the subsequent policy debate was minimal. As time has passed, I remember that moment not because it showed me at my best, but it showed me at my most petty.]

A deeper dive in the poll reveals that the conclusion is less about “The West Wing” per se and more about Americans who think political dramas more accurately reflect American politics than political comedies. Fifty-one percent of Americans thought “The West Wing” was very or somewhat realistic. But 46% said the same about “Madam Secretary,” the Foreign Affairs Service’s comfort food; 42% thought “Scandal” was accurate, and “House of Cards” and “24” both got 41%. On the other hand, “Parks and Recreation” and “Veep” closed the march with 39 and 27% respectively.

Given the swings in American politics over the past five years or so, citizens can be forgiven for believing that American politics is the water of the big drama. The stakes are certainly high and bad decisions will lead to the death of many people.

That said, as someone who has occasionally witnessed political sausage making, let me assure readers that unintended comedy lurks in a slew of American politics and American public policy. No one is as Machiavellian as Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” or as omniscient as Josiah Bartlett in “The West Wing.” Those portrayed as such in the media are on a lucky streak that is about to end.

The Trump years should have disabused everyone of the idea that “The West Wing” is more accurate than “Veep.” It was an administration that was regularly noticed. Trump was a radically immature leader who was so misinformed that he asked Kid Rock for advice on what to do in North Korea. Asset cannot offer a coherent answer on what to do to counter Russia in Ukraine. When John Oliver dubbed what Trump officials did Stupid Watergate: “a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything.” Sounds a lot like “Veep”:

I want American politics to work like inspirational drama. As we got older, however, it became impossible to ignore the abundance of stuffing.


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