WASHINGTON – A Democratic president clashes with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill as a polarized nation debates taxes and guns, illegal immigration and gay rights, and, perpetually, the size of government. Question: Fictional Hollywood or real Washington? Answer: Both.
For seven years, from 1999 to 2006, the NBC drama The West Wing showed America the inner workings of President Josiah Bartlet’s made-up White House. Re-watching its episodes today, it’s difficult to ignore the parallels between the fiction of then and the reality of today. Since the show ended, the line between the authentic and the packaged in Washington seems to have grown increasingly fuzzy, not just in our politics but now, also, in governing itself.
The depiction of American politics has saturated our popular culture over the past two decades, from Spin City and Dave in the 1990s to Veep and Lincoln today. The images, dialogue, casting and storylines almost always play to stereotypes, implanting notions of the American system in the minds of viewers and shaping expectations of how politics and government should look.
Our scripts, the story lines we expect, can confine us. But behind that notion is a deeper question: Has the kind of politicking served up on the screen for so long become so ingrained that it is blowing back into the reality of governing?
More important, are expectations set by Hollywood and reinforced by Washington out of step with what it will take to govern a changing country in challenging times?
Almost daily, individual congressmen and senators march to the House and Senate floors to passionately support or oppose a certain piece of legislation, raising voices and pounding podiums as they preach – to mostly empty chambers, and C-SPAN viewers taken by the ruse TV has created.
Also, Republicans and Democratic leaders hold frequent news conferences – again, much of it for show.
Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-politician-turned-president, used his Hollywood-honed communication skills to get the public on his, if not the Republican Party’s, side. Barack Obama, a skillful orator operating in a new-media world, frequently leverages the latest technology to curry favor with Americans in hopes of pressuring GOP leaders who control the House to see it his way on any number of issues facing the country.
Rare is the politician who cannot, with the help of speechwriters, summon the narrative drama needed to get something done or play to an audience.
Is it any wonder, then, why many Americans tell pollsters they have so little faith in their leaders and institutions?