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Re-Appraising “The West Wing”: A Multi-Season Hyperreal Clinton Sobriquet-Cum-Apologia For Thermidor

We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place; like David Brooks, we think of them merely as “the best.” They are where they are because they are so smart, not because they’ve been born to an earldom or something… Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented, because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is “a second hierarchy”—second to the main hierarchy of money, that is—“based on credentialed expertise.” Which is to say, a social order supported by test scores and advanced degrees and defended by the many professional associations that have been set up over the years to define correct practice, enforce professional ethics, and wage war on the unlicensed… For successful professionals, meritocracy is a beautifully self-serving doctrine, entitling them to all manner of rewards and status, because they are smarter than other people. For people on the receiving end of inequality—for those who have just lost their home, for example, or who are having trouble surviving on the minimum wage, the implications of meritocracy are equally unambiguous. To them this ideology says: forget it. You have no one to blame for your problems but yourself.

– Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

In the past several years, thanks to the ascendancy of a nasty narcissistic white nationalist game show host to the Oval Office, there’s been a re-appraisal of the NBC television drama The West Wing (how meta!) Though there are no viable metrics for digital streaming services, it seems safe to presume that the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed liberal binge-watching sessions far and wide, serving as a Linus van Pelt-style security blanket for the dour viewer. On August 25, it was announced on The Today Show that the cast was preparing for a reunion/fundraiser special on HBO for Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote organization.

Everyone now that might walk in and out of the Democratic Party’s “big tent,” from mainstream liberals [1] to DSA-ers [2], has been engaged with a critical re-appraisal of the show. The Bernie crowd, probably for reasons owing to age, mistakenly claims that the show was a rehearsal for the Obama era, that serial served as an augury of the 44th presidency. While there are some elements of truth to this, particularly in how the series maintained the hegemony of neoliberalism within the Democratic voter base, it fundamentally misses the mark.

Absent from these analyses (for reasons that confound and flabbergast me) is acknowledgement of the blatantly obvious, that the show was undeniably Aaron Sorkin’s love letter/idealized historical dramatization of the Clinton administration. Though Sorkin and collaborators like Lawrence O’Donnell (who became an MSNBC political commentator and talk show host after the serial concluded) vigorously argue to the contrary, this is a seven season re-staging of the 42nd Presidency told through heavily rose-colored glasses.

Or perhaps the proper analogy is that the camera lens instead is roughly equivalent to one of those circular red reflectors on tall white rods placed on suburban lawns? Though these items are made of ostensibly transparent plastic, they are in reality not only opaque but present an accented hyper-reflection intended to prevent journeying into the dark unknown regions that you’d prefer not to examine. So too was The West Wing, which prevented damage by reflecting unwarranted nostalgia unto hindsight about a presidency worthy are far deeper suburban critique, a matter I will return to.

A simple comparative exercise should conclusively demonstrate the analogue, one that was obscured by its creators in all likelihood to prevent viewers from realizing what hackery they were hypnotically beholden to.

President William “Bill” Clinton is a Rhodes Scholar who graduated Oxford and Yale Law.

President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen with an undeniably Clintonesque coiffure) is a Nobel laureate who read for his Doctorate at the London School of Economics after studying at Notre Dame.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton studied at Wellesley College and then Yale Law School.

First Lady Dr. Abigail Bartlet, M.D. (Stockard Channing) studied at St. Mary’s College and then Harvard Medical School.

Prior to ascending to the presidency, the relatively-unknown Clinton governed the predominantly-rural Southern State of Arkansas.

The relatively-unknown Bartlet was Governor of the predominantly-rural Northern State of New Hampshire.

Clinton chose as his first Chief of Staff Leon Panetta.

Bartlett chooses as his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (a character with the most original name imagined in human history, played by the late John Spencer).

Further elaboration on the analogue at this point seems to verge on an epistolatory lobotomy performed on both the author and the reader.

Rather than perpetuate the longueur, I will turn to the outcomes of the show’s success.

Preliminary discussion must acknowledge that, rather than allowing a much-deserved public postmortem and critique of Clinton’s tenure, instead the show was a reified affirmation of this period. The program was a component of the newly-emergent NBC multi-channel television and cinema behemoth that propagandized successfully for the next two decades about the alleged accomplishments of that presidency. (Indeed, we are still beholden to this multi-media full-sensory assault, as demonstrated conclusively by 2016 Wikileaks “Pied Piper candidate” disclosures about the overlap between the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the liberal news media venues.)

The West Wing is the cornerstone of a hyperreal simulation and simulacrum created by the conglomeration of NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Television to obfuscate the neoliberal Thermidor within the Democratic Party that has taken place in the past half century. The interplay between the nonfiction simulation on its news broadcast platforms and the simulacrum on its fictional broadcasts creates a wraparound ideological assault that hinders the base constituencies of the Democratic Party from recognizing the leadership superstructure’s abandonment of the Keynesian social contract and their targeted evisceration of the welfare state. This particular serial had antecedents, no doubt, but what Aaron Sorkin created here was a text functioning in multiple dimensions so to maintain the hegemony of the neoliberal status quo during the consolidation of its Thermidor. French cultural and media philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote “Today it’s not just about buying signs of power, it’s about controlling the code — the process of signification. The elite are not separated from the rabble by purchasing power alone, but by their exclusive and privileged access to signs — and by being at the top end,” a perfect description of how this program operates within the larger simulation/simulacra system.

In media criticism and philosophy, a hyperreality is a world where the distinction between reality and fantasy fades, thanks in no small part to a multimedia ecosphere that bombards humanity constantly with nonfictional and fictional texts, such as print and digital periodicals, radio/television/film, advertising, and now social networking memes and messaging, that are sometimes intentionally indistinguishable, case and point (in a vulgarized form) complaints about “fake news.”

Simulations are texts that mimic both reality and representation, with unclear boundaries between the two. Simulacra, called “a copy without an original,” seems to be familiar but was invented from whole-cloth. In our world of mass-media propaganda, the two overlap and are sometimes indistinguishable so to maintain the hegemonic ideology of our white supremacist settler colonial racial capitalist political economy.

A popular example of a hyperreality, composed of both simulations and simulacra, is Main Street USA at the Walt Disney theme parks, which combines idealist nostalgia with references to real-world antecedents in early 20th century small town America so to create a well-designed strip mall. Another example could be Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” which refers to a genuine past, a fully-functional American welfare state with a full employment mandate, as well as an obscure and romanticized ideal of American social mores that quite readily lends itself to the reactionary fantasias of whiteness. The most popular critical demonstration of how these systems operate is of course The Matrix (1999), which opens with a clever homage to this philosophical thesis when Neo (Keanu Reeves) prominently handles Baudrillard’s 1981 treatise Simulacra and Simulation.

To be clear, there are multiple hyperrealities at work in our world, defined by parameters and boundaries created by the mass media. A Francophone hyperreality in Europe has certain distinctions that makes it more liberal than that of the United States. Likewise, the British hyperreality is more liberal than its American counterpart. Canada, though rapidly approaching parity with America, still has a regulatory apparatus governing media and advertising that has been obliterated in the States. Hyperrealities and their constituent systems of simulation/simulacra are weapons of hegemonic power maintenance. In this sense, The West Wing is a case study and component of the neoliberal Thermidor and its success.

Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council that spawned him and Vice President Al Gore represented the Thermidor of the New Left. In an interview with Richard Seymour, D.D. Guttenplan described the dynamics of the public relations. “I remember people thinking that because this guy worked for McGovern, he demonstrated against the war, so when he gets to be president, he’ll be great. I remember thinking, ‘This guy comes from Arkansas and he’s not a racist, that’s such a big thing and it’s worth voting for.’” [3]

In the recent Journal of American History article “Agents of Change: Microenterprise, Welfare Reform, the Clintons, and Liberal Forms of Neoliberalism” by Dr. Lily Geismer of Claremont McKenna College, [4] the role of micro-finance and micro-enterprise is examined as a major component of the Clinton ideological project and how it became a kind of utopian fixation for the New Democrats. Understanding this novel financial device and its shortcomings helps illuminate further upon the philosophical nature of the Clinton Thermidor:

The development of microenterprise suggests that the roots of key articulations of neoliberalism emerged less from free-market conservatism and instead from the ideology, institutions, and social commitments of liberalism.

One reason that microenterprise was so attractive for the Clintons and the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] was their sense that it updated and extended many of the core tenets of post–New Deal liberalism—especially the emphasis on technocratic expertise, individualist solutions to structural problems, growth over redistribution, and developing strong partnerships between public and private sectors, in particular nonprofits, businesses, and foundations.

The Clintons’ and their allies’ adoption of microenterprise and market-based policies more broadly were, therefore, not solely a defensive reaction to the rise of Reagan and the Republican party nor simply a calculated electoral strategy.

Rather, it was a clear effort to maintain key aspects of liberalism itself.

The Democratic version of neoliberalism understood a distinct role for government as a catalyst connecting the public and private sectors, especially nonprofits and foundations, to stimulate market-oriented solutions to address social ills such as unemployment and poverty and that aimed not to eradicate the welfare state but to reformulate it. Bill Clinton’s programs extended the importance of poverty alleviation, which had long been a benchmark of liberal policy, and shared many similarities with the basic ideas of the War on Poverty. In a clear divergence from previous liberal initiatives, however, this approach rested largely on the premise that the same techniques that created economic growth and prosperity of the new economy could also solve the structural problems such as disinvestment, uneven development of global capitalism, and racial and economic segregation in distressed rural and urban areas in the United States and around the world. In particular, this vision believed in the expansive power of the entrepreneurial economy. [Emphasis added]

This regression towards the over-emphasis on petit bourgeois individualism sought to eject from the matrix of class relations the role of collective power and construction of blocs capable to standing on the basis of solidarity for the improved welfare of its membership. While earlier formulations of American liberalism had sought to pacify workers via improved standards of living and purchase power, they had been inflected by a social democratic acknowledgement of how class, sex/gender relations, and socially-imposed racialization had historically defined groups within society. From this logic, groups such as unionists, women, and minorities had been provided targeted programs attenuated to their specific socio-economic struggles.

By adorning himself in signifiers of the 1950’s-1970’s (most blatant and obnoxiously with the use Fleetwood Mac’s insufferably banal Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow [5]), Clinton initiated a Bonapartist campaign from within. He forever extinguished from the ranks of the ruling regime not only the gains made by the New Left within the Democratic Party (imperfectly materialized with the McGovern and Jesse Jackson campaigns) but furthermore the social democratic victories of the Old Left (likewise materialized, with similar imperfections, by the Keynesian New Deal to Great Society-generation legislators).

In his polemic on the ascendancy of German fascism, Trotsky wrote about “the most important function of Bonapartism: raising itself over the two struggling camps in order to preserve property and order. It suppresses civil war, or precedes it or does not allow it to rekindle.” [6]

The Old Left’s reformist progeny had mistakenly divided Democratic Party constituencies via wars of position against the New Left, usually owing to complaints over what are now described as identity politics, perhaps best exemplified by the 1984 internecine feud between Depression-era social democrats like Irving Howe and Black Power-era militants over Rev. Jesse Jackson’s alleged “Hymie-town” comments. “The two struggling camps” failed to instead build a distinctly anti-chauvinist front that could prevent the ascendancy of the neoliberal hegemony within the Democratic Party. (Indeed, the New Left’s libertarian, anti-state rhetoric, justifiably formulated to serve a critique of Cold War Liberalism’s genocidal policies in Southeast Asia as well as its maintenance of white supremacy, were easily invoked by the Clinton-Gore ‘92 campaign ads.) [7]

The Bartlet administration is shamelessly legislating austerity with glee and adamantly scorning anyone who seeks to strengthen the welfare state. The Thanksgiving 2001 episode, “The Indians in the Lobby” (Sorkin’s racial politics are stereotypically white liberal, brimming with paternalistic condescension), includes a subplot about redefining the federal poverty tabulation guidelines in a fashion that would add four million more people to the rolls. The African American female official from the federal agency responsible for the new tabulation, Bernice Collette (Jenny Gago), is portrayed as frigid and overly-officious. The administration officials, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), are more concerned about the PR framing of the issue, what it would mean for four million people to become poor “on the president’s watch,” rather than the horrors of systemic poverty in America. [8] This sort of engagement is the closest Sorkin can orbit to the depravity of Clinton’s 1996 abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), otherwise known as welfare reform.

The “professional/managerial class” was first described by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in a 1977 article for the New Left journal Radical America. [9] They sought to define the ascendancy of a new cohort that was distinctly technocratic and populated the bureaucratic systems of the state. In 2013, they wrote in a reflective essay “the PMC’s original dream—of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals—has been discredited.” [10] One can see a variation of this thesis articulated in David Halberstam’s 1972 The Best and the Brightest, which explored the way that the Kennedy administration, led by the cream of this newly-emerging class, had been completely and totally wrong about the Vietnam War’s prospects. Thomas Frank’s 2016 analysis further elaborates upon these developments and updates them for the second decade of the new century.

The Clinton/Bartlet administration seemed to serve as the most expensive, elaborate, well-produced argument for the professional/managerial class as government. It seems to illustrate Fukuyama’s idealist claim that “the century that began full of self-confidence in the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy seems at its close to be returning full circle to where it started: not to an ‘end of ideology’ or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” [11] Both embody the PMC New Democrat “post-ideological” politics that sees any notion of government intervention in the market, never mind a command economy, as hopelessly naive, antiquated, and cute, a reliquary of a twentieth century that was so chaotic precisely because of the overreaching, invasive state. Below this sheen of forward-thinking “post-ideological” policy wonkery, of course, is the harsh reality, a hegemonic Reaganism denuded of the Republican Party’s overt nostalgia for hetero-patriarchal Jim Crow apartheid America (which of course makes it much more successful than anything the Gipper ever dreamed of).

This ideological dynamic is given its fullest exhibition in a ranting speech in Season 3 Episode 6, “Gone Quiet,” by the James Carville doppelgänger Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) (the brilliance of swapping a Southern white ethnic Cajun presidential campaign strategist for a Northern white ethnic Italian presidential campaign strategist continues to bespeak Sorkin’s ecstatic status as theopneustos):

I am tired of working for candidates who make me think I should be embarrassed to believe what I believe, Sam! I’m tired of getting them elected! We all need some therapy because someone came along and said that liberal means “soft on crime,” “soft on drugs,” “soft on communism,” “soft on defense,” and “we’re gonna tax you back to the Stone Age because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to!” And instead of saying, “Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, ‘Leave-it-to-Beaver’-trip-back-to-the-fifties,” we cowered in the corner and said, ‘Please. Don’t. Hurt. Me.’ No more. I really don’t care who’s right, who’s wrong. We’re both right, we’re both wrong.

That such regressive politics was not only uninterrogated but won multiple Primetime Emmy Awards, including a performance nomination for Silver, is directly connected to a moral and ideological collapse within American liberalism.

These are the bureaucratic agents of the New Left’s Thermidor. Their identity is not defined by their subscription to a politics as such, instead they define and identify their politics by their impressive résumés. It is an augury of the federal government as one massive neoliberal “public-private partnership,” a world where the technocrat can seamlessly slither between the porous membrane barely dividing the public and private sectors. Class formations like organized labor therefore are hopeless retrograde fiefdoms.

This is exemplified in Season 3 Episode 3, “Ways and Means,” wherein Sam Seaborn has a heated exchange with labor leader Victor Campos (Miguel Sandoval), portrayed as a cynical, duplicitous, and venal Latino gangster who treats presidential endorsements as if he were an extra-miserly grouch refusing to hand out Halloween candy. Rather tellingly, Seaborn uses the anti-immigrant vocabulary of criminalization, including a Trumpian gripe about “illegal immigrants,” whilst the corrupt union leader pleads for amnesty for the “undocumented,” yet again obviating Sorkin’s Neanderthal racial politics.

Progressive ethical critiques like “conflicts of interest” or those stemming from the idea of countercyclical public expenditure are unmentioned owing to the implicit presumption that “the market” will mystically not only rectify but inoculate against such occurrences. In this sense, inadvertently, Sorkin lays bare the fairy tale logic within the totemic invocation of “the free market,” showing “the invisible hand” belongs to a sorcerer presumably wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. This sort of political fantasia seems absurd but in fact does underwrite the political economy of the NBCUniversal/Warner Bros. Television Democratic Party hyperreality. Neoliberalism at this level is a utopianism, a slightly-matured form of the childish nostalgia inscribed into the Main Street USA strip at Disney theme parks that Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard described, a point synoptic with the arguments of John Ralston Saul.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky wrote:

The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the…bureaucracy. It “knows” who is to get something and how has to wait…. The growth of the productive forces has been so far accompanied by an extreme development of all forms of inequality, privilege and advantage, and therewith of bureaucratism. That too is not accidental.

The Clinton/Bartlet administration, as inheritors of the post-Cold War world with the potential peace dividend, came to power as the United States ascended to unipolarity as the most powerful economy on earth (though we know in hindsight the lion’s share was based on rampant speculation caused by deregulation and little more). Inequality grew and social stratification was increased by a neoliberal bureaucracy that fostered campaigns to privatize major public assets and infrastructure, up to and including Social Security, in order to fuel the illusory progress. In this regard, Clinton succeeded with his Thermidor’s capitalist restoration, eviscerating an already-insufficient social safety net as he laid the groundwork coordinates for our New Gilded Age. Whereas Trotsky’s polemic was a misguided and failed attempt to explain a phenomenon he witnessed but woefully mis-diagnosed, its skeleton is a powerful lens to understand the Clinton/Bartlet administrations. The elimination of AFDC, a law passed in tandem with the Crime Omnibus Bill, effectively rendered millions into dire poverty while simultaneously criminalizing their existence, germinating the need for the policeman who in turn catalyzes the bureaucracy, not to mention the mass Black incarceration Gulag Archipelago.

Slavoj Žižek further elaborates in a discussion with Big Think in January 2015 [12]:

…We were all Fukuyamaists for the Nineties. By Fukuyamaism I mean the idea that basically we found, if not the best formula, the least-bad formula. Liberal democratic capitalism with elements of welfare state… Even the Left played this game! We were fighting for less racism, women’s rights, gay rights, whatever tolerance. But basically we accepted the system… If there is a lesson of September 11 and other events, it is that ‘no, we don’t have the answer.’ That not only is liberal democratic capitalism not the universal model and is just a time of slow historical progress for it to be accepted everywhere. But again China, Singapore, and other examples of very successful economies today demonstrate that this, let’s call it ironically, the eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism, it’s coming to an end. What we are more and more getting today is a capitalism which is brutally efficient but it no longer needs democracy for its functioning.

What Sorkin presents is a blissful delusion that denies Žižek’s forecast, the impending collapse of liberal democratic norms into a forthcoming authoritarian capitalist system that will brush aside the Bill of Rights as if it were a dandruff flake. What makes this indictment so tenable is that the show saw its greatest success precisely because of the first nationwide instance of these collapsing norms. The serial went from a success to a smash hit in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s multi-layered interstate theft of the 2000 election. The gaggle of American liberals flocked to the program every week because Martin Sheen’s cool, soothing visage, a striking contrast with that of Bush, provided a reprieve from the neoconservative onslaught while failing to acknowledge this first strike on Constitutional norms was no aberration but instead the impending status quo.

A further metric of this Thermidor is presented in Season 2 Episode 16, “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” One of the subplots features Sam Seaborn exploring the possibility of a presidential pardon for a deceased New Dealer, Daniel Gault, who was convicted of perjury before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) over alleged espionage for the Soviets during World War II. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that the FBI, CIA, and NSA decoded cable intercepts from the 1940s the definitively proved Gault was a spy.

Anyone mildly familiar with the early days of the Red Scare and Cold War can see this is a simplistic fictional retelling of the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers episode, itself an early “Trial of the Century” multimedia spectacle at the dawn of the television era. On the most superficial level, one can see a mild connection to Clinton’s withdrawn nomination of Anthony Lake for Director of Central Intelligence, allegedly catalyzed by Republican protestations when Lake publicly expressed doubt over Hiss’s guilt.

Hiss, a mid-level government functionary who had accumulated powerful enemies in the munitions and agricultural industries during the Great Depression, was railroaded into a perjury conviction by the anti-New Deal reaction, personified by Time Magazine editor Whittaker Chambers. That periodical in turn was owned by the enthusiastic imperial ideologue Henry Luce, the media magnate with deep ties to the so-called “China lobby,” which was horrified and dumbstruck by the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek, their favorite, by Mao Zedong and the 1949 declaration of the People’s Republic of China. Rather than admit their own significant failures and misunderstandings of Asia, these forces of reaction went on the offensive, claiming an elaborate multi-decade plot wherein the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated by a guerrilla partisan army of covert Communists that had brought us to the verge of Red Dawn. British journalist Alistair Cooke wrote in 1951:

At its most foolish, the House Committee [HUAC] wanted to prove that the New Deal was a calculated flirtation with Communism, and that the follies and treacheries it claimed to have on file were the first act of a drama that ended in Pearl Harbor, the Russian domination of eastern Europe, and the loss to American influence of the whole of China. But short of this forgivable partisan lunacy, most Americans who took an interest in the trials of Alger Hiss were affected in much the same way. Those who were for Hiss or against him felt their own pride and past political judgment to be at stake. Many Democrats and old New Dealers felt that Hiss was a gallant protagonist of the younger liberal crowd that went to Washington in the New Deal’s first crusade. They feared, as the others hoped, that a verdict against Hiss would be a verdict against the New Deal. Whatever Hiss or his lawyers might say later, the House Committee thus succeeded, before he ever came to trial, in making a large and very mixed public identify Hiss with what was characteristic of the New Deal. [13]

The Hiss trial was an early attempt to argue for revoking the New Deal and therefore the postwar welfare state. Over the past seven decades it has served as the cornerstone of neoconservative ideology, not to mention the careers of major figures like Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Beginning in 1978 with the dubious scholarship in Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Victor Navasky, in his capacity as publisher of The Nation, has curated a substantial academic and journalistic bibliography that demonstrates convincing counter-arguments to the accusations made by Chambers, that the Time editor and Hiss had been members of a Communist espionage cell in 1930s Washington. [14]

The nuances of the television episode merit interrogation. At a confrontational meeting with the FBI, Seaborn antagonistically queries “Ring Lardner’s just died. How many years does he get back?” This deceptively plays to liberal sympathies for the lives that were destroyed by McCarthyism and the Black List, softening them up. Then, at the climax of the subplot, National Security Advisor Nancy McNally (Anna Deavere Smith), an African American woman clearly indebted to Madeline Albright, grants Seaborn access to a classified NSA file, not unlike the 1995 public disclosure of the sensational and dubious Venona project by the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, informally called the Moynihan Commission. Here the audience is shocked and saddened with Seaborn to learn the truth of the matter.

By endorsing the neoconservative accusations about the New Deal and the welfare state as an espionage plot, Sorkin seeks to further the liberal embrace of austerity and privatization of the social safety net. This of course makes the use of a Black actress to deliver the moral certitude of this politics so much more abhorrent. First, it works to negate the Black feminist critique of neoliberalism as a racialized and systemically-racist political program which will further immiserate working class Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and their children. Second, it endorses a liberal racist notion of “acceptable” Black womanhood that is tenable only when subordinated to and in service of a white supremacist and imperialist praxis. Third, it uses a Black woman’s body and implicit moral authority to vocalize an endorsement of the multiple police agencies responsible for repeated instances of state repression against the Black national liberation struggle, which included a substantial, prolonged engagement with revolutionary Marxist-Leninist politics and international solidarity, case and point the Communist Party USA and the Soviet Union’s endorsement and support of African American causes. Fourth, this retroactively serves as a subtle endorsement of Clinton’s welfare reform, disguised as a tepid espionage melodrama. (The ironic naming of the Hiss stand-in “Gault,” a homonym of Ayn Rand’s mega-rich Übermensch John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, carries a distinctly sick twist when considered through this lens.)

A multi-episode arc spanning the second and third season deals with a thinly-veiled re-staging of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, with Bartlet revealing to the public he concealed his multiple sclerosis diagnosis while running for president, eventuating a censure rather than impeachment.

There are two gestures inscribed in this simulation that should be scrutinized. First, by redefining the scandal as a private medical matter rather than a workplace sexual liaison, it refocuses the Clinton impeachment onto the President, a white cis-gendered heterosexual male in the most powerful position on planet earth, and totally erases Monica Lewinsky as a person, a significantly less-powerful subordinate worker and the subject of a grotesque media circus that NBC perpetuated both via its news broadcasts and entertainment broadcasts like Saturday Night Live. Bill Clinton and the media are therefore absolved of a need to be held accountable for what was done to Lewinsky. Though one should hold the allegations made by Christopher Hitchens about Sidney Blumenthal up to serious scrutiny, his claims do carry a hint of truth, that this extremely media-savvy Administration was ever-vigilant about polling numbers and worked the liberal media to benefit and re-shape its image in the popular consciousness during Kenneth Starr’s hyper-partisan and Puritanical tenure as independent counsel.

This leads to the second, much more disturbing gesture. In the serial, there is brief mention made about whether Bartlet’s condition has hindered his intellectual capacities as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, a concern that is quickly brushed aside. But in reality, Clinton did allow the Starr investigation to impact his decision making as leader of the empire, particularly in the war on Serbia, his Desert Fox bombing campaign in Iraq, and other endeavors in Afghanistan and Sudan. In essence, the serial seeks to continue what its counterparts on the news platforms had begun, a liberal apologia for war crimes committed in the name of the personal popularity of an outgoing, practically lame duck administration.

The fallout of the Bartlet disclosure scandal includes a heated exchange with Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), clearly referencing the shouting matches between Clinton and Gore over the Lewinsky episode, which the real-life Vice President alleged had damaged his 2000 campaign against George W. Bush. Several seasons later, Hoynes resigns after one of his numerous extra-marital affairs leads to a leak of classified information. Portrayed as cynical, venal, and self-serving, the vice-president serves as a stand-in for Clinton. But the lines delivered by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry continue a demonstrable misogyny that must be held in consideration of Lewinsky.

You’re a giant, John. You’re a US Senator, the Vice President of the United States and presumptive nominee of your party. You cannot be taken down by this cheap person.

These are repeating patterns of the Thermidor in motion.

Part of the nostalgia for the show in the past several years has included a potential spin-off sequel serial. This opens a further analytical vista.

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Bartlet White House and is obviously modeled on Rahm Emanuel. At the conclusion of the series, he becomes Chief of Staff to Obama stand-in Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), serving in the same position that his real-world counterpart held under Obama. As Emanuel returns to the headlines with his boastful forecasts of an election that will be swung by the “Biden Republicans” [15] (on an NBC interview program, no less, adding another layer to the simulation/simulacrum device), one can easily imagine the egomaniacal Lyman mouthing similar words.

Can we envision a sequel serial where a Chicago Mayor Josh Lyman would be responsible for shuttering 50 public schools? Allowing the operation of a police department torture house? Covering up for years a police car dashboard video showing the murder of a Black teenager in service of his re-election campaign? Implementing harsh anti-union measures against the public sector in tandem with a Santos administration that champions privatizing education and other municipal services?

If the answer is a definite no, we quickly can see how far the moral decrepitude of the Clinton Thermidor reaches. We continue to live under its burden, nearly three decades since the 1992 election. It defines what we can expect from either the election of Joe Biden or the re-election of Donald Trump. Only in the past decade, thanks in no small part to the publication of Dr. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the ascendancy of the #BlackLivesMatter/Movement for Black Lives movements, and, to a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders, has the suburban audience that made The West Wing a hit skeptically revisited the Clinton Thermidor and its consequences.

Umberto Eco, writing about a hyperreality quite similar to what we now experience daily, wrote:

Constructing a full-scale model of the Oval Office (using the same materials, the same colors, but with everything obviously more polished, shinier, protected against deterioration) means that for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of a reincarnation. To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The “completely real” becomes identified with the “completely fake.” Absolute unreality is offered as real presence. The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a “sign” that will then be forgotten as such: The sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement. Not the image of the thing, but its plaster cast. Its double, in other words… We must understand, however, from what depth of popular sensibility and craftsmanship today’s photorealists draw their inspiration and why they feel called upon to force this tendency to the point of exacerbation. There is, then, an America of furious hyperreality, which is not that of Pop art, of Mickey Mouse, or of Hollywood movies. There is another, more secret America (or rather, just as public, but snubbed by the European visitor and also by the American intellectual); and it creates somehow a network of references and influences that finally spread also to the products of high culture and the entertainment industry. [16]

+++

The phrase ‘anti-globalization movement’ is a coinage of the US media and activists have never felt comfortable with it. Insofar as this is a movement against anything, it’s against neoliberalism, which can be defined as a kind of market fundamentalism—or, better, market Stalinism—that holds there is only one possible direction for human historical development. The map is held by an elite of economists and corporate flacks, to whom must be ceded all power once held by institutions with any shred of democratic accountability; from now on it will be wielded largely through unelected treaty organizations like the IMF, WTO or NAFTA… The corporate media here is probably the most politically monolithic on the planet: neoliberalism is all there is to see—the background reality; as a result, the word itself cannot be used. The issues involved can only be addressed using propaganda terms like ‘free trade’ or ‘the free market’. So American activists find themselves in a quandary: if one suggests putting ‘the N word’ (as it’s often called) in a pamphlet or press release, alarm bells immediately go off: one is being exclusionary, playing only to an educated elite. There have been all sorts of attempts to frame alternative expressions—we’re a ‘global justice movement’, we’re a movement ‘against corporate globalization’. None are especially elegant or quite satisfying and, as a result, it is common in meetings to hear the speakers using ‘globalization movement’ and ‘anti-globalization movement’ pretty much interchangeably… More and more, activists have been trying to draw attention to the fact that the neoliberal vision of ‘globalization’ is pretty much limited to the movement of capital and commodities, and actually increases barriers against the free flow of people, information and ideas… The main achievement of the nation-state in the last century has been the establishment of a uniform grid of heavily policed barriers across the world. It is precisely this international system of control that we are fighting against, in the name of genuine globalization. [Emphasis added]Fellow Worker David Graeber, 1961-2020, Rest in Power [17]

Notes.

1-https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/us/politics/west-wing-politics.html

2-https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/04/how-liberals-fell-in-love-with-the-west-wing & https://youtu.be/MW30Zg2PjVI

3-Seymour, R. (2012). Unhitched: The trial of Christopher Hitchens. London: Verso.

4-Lily Geismer, Agents of Change: Microenterprise, Welfare Reform, the Clintons, and Liberal Forms of Neoliberalism, Journal of American History, Volume 107, Issue 1, June 2020, Pages 107–131

5-https://youtu.be/A3JA1nWPFqM

6-https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1932/321030.htm

7-https://youtu.be/XoBFL6iwid4

8-https://youtu.be/q9EehZlw-zk

9-https://libcom.org/files/Rad%20America%20V11%20I2.pdf

10-http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/wp-content/files_mf/ehrenreich_death_of_a_yuppie_dream90.pdf

11-https://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm

12-https://bigthink.com/videos/slavoj-zizek-on-the-failures-of-the-leftist-movement

13-Cooke, A. (1952). A generation on trial: U. S. A. v. Alger Hiss. New York: Knopf.

14-http://algerhiss.com/

15-https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/this-will-be-the-year-of-the-biden-republican-rahm-emanuel-says/ar-BB18eZjM

16-Eco, U. (2002). Travels in Hyperreality. In Travels in hyperreality: Essays (pp. 1-59). San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

17-https://www.newleftreview.org/issues/II13/articles/david-graeber-the-new-anarchists

 

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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