The one thing the West Wing can teach you about politics

Morgan Jones

Criticising the politics of the television programme the West Wing is like shooting unusually quippy fish in a barrel. It’s easy and it’s been done before, not least in the journalist Jonn Elledge’s very moving recent piece on re-visiting the series. But West Wing bashing is also good fun, and continuingly relevant, because there do remain, stalking the corridors of power, people who take seriously a show where the Democratic president appoints a hard right ideologue to the Supreme Court, and does so because he just loves discourse, and this is good. Don’t even get me started on the genocide in Equatorial Kundu (which, seeing as the show just forgets about it at some point, after which it is never mentioned again, is presumably ongoing). 

There are few British politicians who have not been the victim of an attempted “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” campaign (Ed MilibandNick Clegg, and Jeremy Corbyn being notable examples), and the show remains part of the political class’s cultural canon.  It’s undeniably great television, but safe to say, unless you’re someone who thinks the Clinton administration just needed a little less sexual harassment and a little more subtly swelling background music, the West Wing has nothing to teach us about contemporary politics. This is true, I would argue, in all respects bar one.  

If asked the question “which West Wing character are you”, as most people working in left of centre UK politics probably have been at some point (this is actually why we lost the Red Wall. Few know this), most men I know and basically like would probably say Toby, the grouchy and laconic speech writer, and most men I know and basically don’t would probably say Josh, the show’s mile-a-minute deputy chief of staff and de facto protagonist. I know my answer. I am Donna, Josh’s assistant. I am not special: all women working in politics who might find themselves asked this question are Donna. CJ? The brilliant press secretary who ultimately becomes chief of staff? Sorry, life’s tough, and CJ is a fictional character. Not Donna though. Donna is very real. You’re Donna, and so am I.  

The West Wing is, as Elledge correctly notes, generally a quite sexist programme, but with Donna the show runners hack through sexism and reach a kind of deeper truth, the only one the West Wing still offers. Donna is both competent and useless, necessary to Josh as is a hotel trouser press to a man living out of his suitcase. She is there to have things explained to her (taxes? Immanuel Kant? How the media works? Employment law?), a professional victim of exposition. Donna has no plot of her own which does not ultimately hinge on Josh: she exists as both administrative and emotional support for Josh’s very big brain. In the end they fall in love (if you are a woman and you think this is nice I would suggest you are suffering from ideological false consciousness). 

Donna, in the show, is bleating and irritating, and at the end she gets to run the First Ladies’s office, as a treat, a treat gendered to the bitter end. I am not saying that she has been cloned and distributed across Westminster, that she is an accurate portrayal of women who work in politics. She isn’t, but as someone who rounded out the guts of my 20s as a political aide at the start of the year, of this I am sure: to see Donna is to see how you are seen. I become more convinced of this each time I hear a woman described as kind while her male colleagues are described as clever, or encounter an organisation or office where the divide between policy and communications, or policy and admin, is more strictly gendered than that in most convents.  

Paeans to representation of the “I felt so seen!” kind usually discuss being seen in a positive or truthful light. There is something useful, too, about seeing the ways in which one can be held in thoughtless, progressive contempt, of the kind in which it is clear the very clever men who wrote the West Wing (they’re Josh) hold their creation. It’s like catching someone popping a spot in the 1 Parliament Street lifts, unguarded but truthful. Donna is the way a certain kind of man thinks about women, on show in a far clearer and more informative way in this quarter century old television programme than in most other instances. 

There will never be a let Donna be Donna, because there is no there there. The big thoughts are for other people, inside her head thoughts only of the kind of men who wrote her, and she will be forever walking a half step behind. Not despite but because of this, she’s the only part of the show that’s aging well. She can still tell you something that’s true about politics. Josh wishes.

Morgan Jones is a writer and Contributing Editor for Renewal.

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