In a scene from The West Wing, White House press secretary CJ Cregg and deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman are arguing about the significance of a presidential primary vote taking place later that evening in Hartsfield’s Landing, New Hampshire. In the small town, we’ve learned, all 42 residents vote in person at midnight, and their results, announced soon after, have always reliably predicted the statewide winner of the nation’s crucial first primary. “It’s absurd that 42 people have this kind of power,” Josh says. “I think it’s nice,” CJ counters. “Do you?” “I think it’s democracy at its purest. They all gather at once…”. “At a gas station.” They banter a bit more before CJ delivers the killer line: “Maybe, just maybe, just maybe, those 42 people are teaching us something about ourselves, that freedom is the glory of God, that democracy is its birthright, and that our vote matters.” Josh tries to undercut the seriousness of the moment by bringing up dinner: “You getting that pizza?”
It’s easy to assume, from a cynical 2020 perspective, that CJ is being sarcastically melodramatic. But, in fact, she means every word. The West Wing, as a television show, truly, madly, earnestly believes in the power of democracy and the idea of the ‘more perfect union’ that is – that could be – the US.
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This scene originally aired in 2002, in the middle of the third season of the acclaimed NBC hit. It was also part of a recent West Wing reunion special in which the original cast gathered to reenact this entire episode, Hartsfield’s Landing, on a Los Angeles stage, with the stated mission of encouraging viewers to vote in the upcoming US presidential election. The special only served to underscore how far US politics have fallen into partisan disarray over the last 18 years, from dewy-eyed speeches on network television shows about the sacredness of voting (and the genuine feeling that this reflected the times) to a real-life president who has fomented doubt in the election process itself and has said he may not accept the results of the November 2020 vote, presumably only if they don’t go his way.
The West Wing shows us an America so high on the relatively carefree 1990s that it’s sure things can only get better in the 2000s. That goes especially for the country’s oft-romanticised system of government (and its idiosyncratic election process) so revered that it has long been a blind spot, unquestioned in the name of patriotism. Since The West Wing began in 1999, two of the last three presidents have won the office, while losing the popular vote – thanks to the electoral college system. This is not a reality The West Wing’s soaring instrumentals and inspirationally-lit speeches grappled with.