What I learned from The West Wing (Thing)

Things The West Wing — and its inquisitorial companion podcast — might teach us

Each blaming the other for starting their godforsaken podcast is a charming, reliable running gag

What we might take from The West Wing (Thing)

On a few occasions I’ve gotten a whiff of a high-end design consultancy’s rarefied air. It’s full of pretty young people walking with great purpose. They appear confident. They know they’re here to Make Things Better. They wear lanyards. I’ve always called it “the West Wing smell”.

Failure is glamorous

If you watch The West Wing, you will hear opinions coming from characters’ mouths which have been crafted by veterans of recent Democratic politics, paid handsomely to come to Hollywood and join a TV writers’ room. As a result, The West Wing does a lot to excuse Democrats for being ineffectual, and to dress up the characters’ meagre achievements as heroic.

“Smart” is everything

I rarely get a sense of the characters on The West Wing as public servants (i.e., serving the public). Mostly they act as though they are governing for dumb hogs.

Lived experience is immaterial

When it bothers to show them, The West Wing treats anyone outside the political sphere as a rube or a wacko. Occasional trips outside Washington D.C. usually sees the characters meeting corn-fed mid-western stereotypes.

Working too hard is glorious

Good people work until they drop, and that is the right thing to do. Because life is supposed to be hard and everybody needs to harden up. If you ever deserve a holiday, it’s only because you are so great at your job that we need you back in a week, fresh and at your best for the heroic fight ahead.

Institutions are more important than people

Respect for the institution is at the heart of The West Wing. They must be preserved at all costs. The most important of these institutions might be “bipartisanship”. Everything that happens in The West Wing is drowned in the thick, yellow biscuit gravy of the two-party system, a system America’s founding fathers knew was terribly flawed at best.

Like most other institutions in America, the two-party system is not actually very old, is quite damaging and could absolutely be changed if the people who benefit from it weren’t doing their best to obscure other ways of running things.

We can’t ignore institutions (or institutional thinking). But institutions are only institutions because certain humans say they are, and taking note of who those humans are and how they benefit from the status quo is fairly important if you want to get anything done.

Writers are really very, very powerful, seriously

The ultimate idea behind all of Sorkin’s work appears to be “One good speech will save the world”. Perhaps that idea resonated with so many powerful people (politicians, media, Hollywood) that it self-fulfilled. Sorkin’s words and ideas have, in fact, changed the world, because they happened to suit the goals of the wealthy.



David works in service/strategic design: experienceillustration.com. He draws comics at Squishface Studio: squishfacestudio.com. Other stuff: nakedfella.com.

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