There’s a scene from the award-winning political drama The West Wing that perfectly sums up the pre-Trump/Brexit political zeitgeist of the last three decades. President Bartlet’s staffer Toby Ziegler is having lunch with a recalcitrant left-leaning Democratic senator who is shocked to learn the President may reduce social security funding: ‘Compromise essential Democratic Party principles to cut a social security deal with the Republicans?’
The senator subsequently threatens to run as a third party candidate. ‘Come at us from the left,’ Ziegler says in response, ‘and I’m going to own your ass.’ At the beginning of 2015, one could easily imagine a Hillary Clinton staffer using similar words against Bernie Sanders, or a UK Labour Party staffer saying it to Jeremy Corbyn with a huge degree of self-assurance.
Halfway through 2017 however, such a threat seems laughable – Sanders is now the most popular politician in the United States and Corbyn is odds-on favourite to be the next British Prime Minister. The platform of politically strategic pragmatism from which The West Wing drew on its claims to seriousness has been upturned by the events of the past year in much the same way that the political establishment more broadly has been fundamentally changed.
Since the early 1990s, political culture in the west had been underpinned by a belief in politically moderate pragmatism. This belief not only framed the policies of the major political parties, but also framed the assumptions in our broader political culture about what was politically possible in the modern era. Ziegler could make fun of the bleeding-heart senator threatening to run for President and we in the audience could laugh along with him because we all thought we knew that principled ideologues could never get elected without becoming more pragmatic. In the minds of the writers, political conflict in the modern era was no longer about battles between ideologies, but rather between the people smart enough to accept political reality and the ideologues who refuse to.
The drama in shows like The West Wing accordingly depended on the audience agreeing that the extent of what is politically possible is framed by the centrist, ‘moderate’ politicians. The smart and technocratic staffers can steer President Bartlet on a course that balances the left-leaning ideologues against the Republicans in a way that not only achieves legislative victories but, in Ziegler’s words, constitutes ‘governing responsibly.’
We are now in an era where these rules of electioneering and governance have completely broken down. Donald Trump seemed laughable as he committed numerous gaffes in the lead up to the election. It doesn’t seem so laughable now that he has defeated the well-funded and professionally run Clinton campaign (a campaign that one can imagine a real life Toby Ziegler working on).
In this current era, it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to imagine that rogue Democratic senator in The West Wing not only carrying through with his threat of running against President Bartlet, but also winning the Democratic nomination and then the general election (while Ziegler and his fellow discredited staffers look for new jobs or write books trying to make sense of what happened). This is not a world the creators of The West Wing universe could have predicted and it’s one that we can still barely comprehend.
It’s striking how many plot lines in The West Wing mimic real-life political events, except that the way they have panned out in reality would have been dismissed by the scriptwriters as being too unrealistic for the show. In the episode ‘Drought Conditions’, for example, Ziegler initially decides to support Senator Rafferty – a challenger for the Democratic nomination with an ambitious healthcare plan – but then advises her to withdraw after he is admonished by a former staffer colleague for his idealistic support. In this episode, Ziegler not only draws attention to his own somewhat repressed sense of political conviction but also betrays an understanding that there was a strategic advantage in Rafferty giving voice to inspiring ideas about healthcare reform during the leadership contest.
This plot line brings to mind Corbyn’s own journey to the Labour Party leadership ballot in 2015, when MPs who had no interest in voting for him nominated him anyway to ‘broaden the debate’ during the leadership campaign. Where it differs however is that instead of dropping out of the race like Senator Rafferty, he went on to win it with the assistance of thousands of newly signed Labour Party members and has not looked back since.
These assumptions about how politics work are not only found in serious political dramas like The West Wing, but permeate many different aspects of entertainment culture including more light-hearted satires such as the British political comedy The Thick Of It. The protagonist Malcolm Tucker, the Labour Party Director of Communications, is a hard-headed pragmatist obsessed with how politicians present to the media and is foul-mouthed and withering in his criticisms when they perform badly (‘you were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra’). Tucker is not motivated by any particular worldview or ideology and the few times when an issue arises that might spark an ideological standpoint, Tucker manages to find a politically friendly way of sticking to the party’s perceived political interests.
Tucker is partly inspired by Tony Blair’s former staffer Alistair Campbell, but could just as easily conjure the image of the role Rahm Emanuel played for Barack Obama or Lachlan Harris for Kevin Rudd. They, like Tucker, all present as hard-headed political operatives who eschew ideology in pragmatic pursuit of electoral power and cleverly disregard the ideological indulgences of either wing of their party. And they, like Tucker, would almost certainly be unwelcome in the current Labour leader’s office.
Considering these seismic shifts, how might the likes of Tucker and Ziegler have fared in recent elections? One can see Ziegler advising Hillary Clinton that her victory was assured in the face of Trump’s radical immigration policy, or imagine Malcolm Tucker advising Jeremy Corbyn that his election manifesto was electoral suicide (if Tucker hadn’t already been fired). Either character would have struggled to predict or even comprehend the results of the subsequent elections. Ultimately, their assumptions of what constitutes political ‘realism’ no longer hold.
The electoral swings of the past eighteen months have shattered most people’s understanding of what is ‘realistic’ in politics. We’re in uncharted waters now, and the first scriptwriter to capture this new era of populist leadership will have the opportunity to set the tone for political entertainment for the next decade.