February 17, 2016 by Jean
I’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.