Deja Vu


February 17, 2016 by Jean

The West Wing PosterI’m not a big television viewer. I’m not willing to pay for cable channels that I never watch, and because digital signals (e.g., from satellites) don’t travel through trees, my rural location in the most heavily forested state in the United States limits my other options. I can get the local CBS and NBC and ABC affiliates (and some of their auxiliary channels) over the air with rabbit ears, and I could probably get a few more channels by installing a fairly tall rooftop antenna. I can also connect my television to my computer and stream shows from the internet. Mostly, though, I rely on the excellent DVD collection of the Portland (Maine) Public Library. This is how I’ve watched series like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife (although this strategy always means that I’m a year or two behind the current buzz).

This fall and winter, I’ve been working my way through the seven seasons of a drama that I loved when it originally aired from 1999-2006, The West Wing. I’ve just finished the final season, which focuses on the election to replace the show’s outgoing President, Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen). These episodes were written, filmed and aired ten years ago, in 2005-06, so I was surprised to find some eerie similarities to this year’s political issues and debates.

I should start by pointing out the differences. Ten years ago, the program didn’t imagine how far to the right the Republican party has moved. Or maybe the show’s liberal producers and writers just couldn’t bring themselves to go there. The result is that, although the program depicts tensions between religious conservatives in the party and the moderate wing, the moderate wing prevails and the candidate is an elder statesman pro-choice senator from California (played by Alan Alda). The Democratic candidate is a young left-liberal congressman from Texas (played by Jimmy Smits) who is also the country’s first Latino presidential candidate. Both candidates hew to the high road, professing respect for one another and eschewing negative campaigning in favor of substantive discussion of issues facing the country. The resulting campaign ends up looking more like this year’s Democratic primary than like the food fight that has been the Republican primary campaign or than what we are likely to see in the general election campaign of fall 2016.

What surprised me was the similarity of issues and positions being debated by the candidates. In a fictional televised debate, the candidates are asked about the problem of Americans without adequate health care and the Democrat argues that there is a simple way to solve this problem – remove the age restrictions from Medicare and have “Medicare for all.” Where have I heard this recently?? They also debate immigration policy, particularly how to deal with illegal immigration across the southern border, and energy policy in response to climate change.

The candidates also have to deal with unanticipated current events. When the outgoing President responds to a crisis in Kazakhstan by sending in American troops to serve as a buffer between Chinese and Russian armies, both candidates are dismayed by the fact that dealing with this will become a defining issue for the next president. In another episode, one candidate’s visit to a Black church in Los Angeles becomes unexpectedly fraught when a 12-year-old black boy with a plastic toy gun is shot by a Los Angeles policeman and witnesses state that the boy was trying to put up his hands to surrender when he was shot. This plot line looked for all the world like a Law and Order “ripped from the headlines” composite of Cleveland and Ferguson, except that it was written years before those events.

What did I take away from this experience of déjà vu? First was the reminder that the issues we are dealing with in this election are not new. Political tension about immigration, race relations and national security go back to early years of the republic. Americans have been debating the pros and cons of guaranteed health care for all at least since the Great Depression, when FDR had to sacrifice this part of the Social Security Act of 1935 in order to get the rest of it through Congress. Thirty years later, LBJ managed to get government-guaranteed health care back into the Social Security Act, but only by limiting it to the elderly (Medicare) and the indigent (Medicaid).

But what about the tone of the current election? At least on the Republican side, this election seems to me to be particularly lacking in any kind of rational discourse and to be fueled by personal attacks and demagoguery. I wonder, however, how much of my reaction is based on the reality of elections past and how much it is based on our tendency to look back on our history through the rose-colored glasses of idealism and American exceptionalism. The rough and tumble history of American politics tends to get lost in that view. We forget how bitterly fought was the race between Adams and Jefferson, that legislators used to get into fisticuffs on the floor of Congress, and that one of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel with a political opponent, Aaron Burr.

Perhaps if we had a more realistic view of how messy democracy and its political dynamics are, we would be more willing to have the tough debates about complicated issues instead of looking for easy answers and be less likely to let disillusioned idealism turn into political cynicism. Watching this ten-year-old fictional Presidential campaign helped me gain perspective on this year’s disturbing politics.

9 thoughts on “Deja Vu

  1. Charlie Emmons says:

    This piece should be reprinted in the New York Times.

  2. Jean R. says:

    I absolutely LOVED The West Wing series. It was so smartly researched and written and the acting was top notch. Your comparisons between fictional politics back then and reality politics now is interesting and not really too surprising considering that fiction writers often take factual stuff and exaggerate its trends to write scripts set in the future—or near-furture in the case of The West Wings.

    Fans of The West Wing probably will love the series on CBS called Madam Secretary which will remind you of bits and pieces of Clinton, Albright and Rice’s experiences. Albright even played herself in one segment. It’s an eye-opener on how complicated that job really is.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, In watching the West Wing again, I was very impressed with the quality of the writing. I hadn’t thought about the research angle, but I think you’re right that a lot of research went into this — which is probably why they were so good at anticipating later events.

  3. Interesting Jean…I have been reluctant to watch West Wing again…maybe just because I am disillusioned by politics these days. I loved it when it was running and in reruns. I would love it if we could have real debates about what is important for us in this country.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I really enjoyed watching it again and it made me feel less disillusioned by current politics. Now, for something different, I’m watching a 90s show that I adored — Northern Exposure; it has no Politics, but lots of politics.

      • Jean R. says:

        Northern Exposure is one of my all-time favorite programs! We would never fight over the remote.

        • Jean says:

          We clearly have similar tastes in television dramas. Did you see the series that Joshua Brand and John Falsey did after Northern Exposure, I’ll Fly Away? It was set in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement and told from the point of view of a young black single mother who works as a household domestic for the family of the local District Attorney. I loved that one, too.

  4. […] national historical narrative of American exceptionalism does us a disservice. (See, for example, Deja Vu.) Instead of understanding just how messy American politics have always been, we look backwards […]

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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