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SHAH: Sorkin’s ‘West Wing’ remains relevant yet varies from today

Opinions Column: The Progressive's Hot Take

Aaron Sorkin created and wrote much of the most popular TV show among young liberals who idealize government (myself included), “The West Wing." It is a brilliant 26-Emmy-winning political drama that respects and romanticizes liberalism and the government, but more specifically, the institution of the presidency. Centered on President Josiah Bartlet and his loyal senior staff, “The West Wing” dares to be aspirational and inspirational, envisioning a democratic presidential administration that truly strives to do big, ambitious and idealistic things in the face of what may seem like insurmountable odds. In every episode, I have been moved by the portrayal of love and passion cultivated for our collective American ideals and system of law and justice.  

Sorkin, in a CNN Sunday morning segment, recently remarked, “I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, okay?” He then went on to warn that transgender rights were simply a distraction employed by the Republicans to sidetrack Democrats into forgetting the economic anxiety of the middle class, implying that there are things of far greater importance than protecting the existence of queer people in America. 

Of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was quick to reply via Twitter: “News Flash: Medicare for All & equal rights are not trends. When people complain about low turnout in some demos, it is not because communities are apathetic, it is because they do not see you fighting for them. If we do not show up for people, why should you feel entitled to their vote?” 

On my biannual binge of “The West Wing,” which hurts to watch in conjunction with our current administration, I am starting to realize that Sorkin’s idealism of governmental institutions is a mentality that has rapidly devolved into constant distrust of and disappointment with our politicians over the last decade, especially in the midst of an administration that elicits no pride from its people and fails to respect basic constitutional law. Sorkin’s imagined ideal democracy is a model that recent Democratic administrations have tended to follow — one that prefers to hold the higher moral ground at all times, even if it means sacrificing the issues at hand, and one that has failed continually to make lasting change. His idea of the perfect politician, armed with disarming intellect and gravitas, looks different now — and definitely more female. 

Now, more than ever, political institutions are failing diverse populations across the country. Sorkin’s dismissive attitude regarding transgender rights (which could easily be substituted with gay rights, feminism, civil rights, etc.) is indicative of a culture that chooses when to listen to young people and when to silence them for their inexperience when the old-timers do not like what they have to say. Politicians like Ocasio-Cortez seek to authentically represent their people in institutions that tend to overlook minority populations, even if her policy proposals are seen as radical or insensible, in order to interrupt a culture created to please the old white male majority. In becoming the youngest woman in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez represents the interests of the young people who are the future of this country. 

The truth is, Sorkin did not mean “young.” He meant “radical," "impractical" and "idealistic." Perhaps if young politicians followed the orthodox and traditional path set out for them by their predecessors, Sorkin would respect them more. But politics look, feel and are essentially different now — especially in the realm of Twitter feuds. Still, if “The West Wing” was reimagined in this day and age, firebrand characters such as Ocasio-Cortez would fit perfectly into the landscape that is filled with people who are passionate enough to fight hard for what they believe in. 

In an age where our government continues to fail, misrepresent and disappoint us, we should be radical, impractical and idealistic. We need to be, because issues such as transgender people’s ability to use their own respective bathrooms are just as important as economic policy, even when they are not convenient to see through. Justice is not something selectively served. 

“The West Wing” has given me hope in politics time and time again. But if there were more leaders willing to be direct and genuine like Ocasio-Cortez instead of shedding their initial idealism to become jaded and compromised politicians, I would not need to turn to an old show with frighteningly similar themes to our current sociopolitical climate. Perhaps we would have more trust in our political institutions.

Sorkin’s age of politics where liberalism was holy and gravitas was the most important accessory is over. Long live an age where everyone from a Latina from the Bronx to an Indigenous woman in New Mexico feels represented and respected enough to be heard by everyone, even if they do not fit the bill of a typical Sorkin character. 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School sophomore, contemplating her primary major but minoring in political science and philosophy. Her column, “The Progressive’s Hot Take,” runs on alternate Fridays.


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