In the years just around the turn of the century, I remember tuning in to NBC every week to watch The West Wing. I had just begun working for Democratic campaigns then — sometimes dispiriting work, in the wake of Bush’s election. But every Wednesday at 9pm, West Wing reminded me why I delved into the political whirlwind in the first place. It portrayed politicians as upright people honoring the nobility of their work, invigorated by the great challenges D.C. poses, never forgetting their responsibility — win or lose — to advocate as a force for good in this country. Call me a hopeless political romantic, but seeing that conception of politics broadcast nationwide strengthened my resolve that what I was doing was, for all its disorder and disappointments, a worthwhile pursuit.
I’m not the only one. Allison Janney, who I will always know as White House Press Secretary C. J. Cregg, reflected what the show aspired to and how its absence is being felt today in a recent interview with Variety.
“But gosh, it would be just a great time for ‘West Wing’ now, for whoever is disillusioned by what’s going on today. Those are the people you want working in Washington: People whose hearts are in the right place, people who reach across the aisle, people who want to do the right thing.”
Hear, hear, C.J.; hear, hear.
The show’s been off the air for more than a decade now. How times have changed. Today’s TV politicians aren’t nearly as noteworthy as they are notorious. Everyone recognizes Frank Underwood’s menacing southern-drawl from House of Cards, and the theory that politics is a cutthroat game of chess makes for great drama. But if you wanted a more accurate depiction of our current political machine, most Americans today would probably point you towards HBO’s Veep. That is, D.C. as home to a cast of absurd characters, all competing to top one another in cynicism, incompetence, and vulgarity.
Full disclosure, the show is acerbically and sardonically hilarious.
But what makes for great TV tonight on primetime now carries a predominantly dispiriting message. It suggests we’ve given up hope on the promise of government, that whatever respect for politics we once held is now gone. And with Congress’s approval rating at 24% — barely above that of bedbugs — and President Trump’s honeymoon immediately gone sour , I’m not quite sure what’s art imitating life and what’s life imitating art.
So I asked myself. Where can young people look for the stories, the drama, the narratives that might inspire them to roll up their sleeves, get involved, and aspire to better than our politicians today? For, as one real life presidential hero immortally declared:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” — Theodore Roosevelt — “Citizenship in A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, April 23, 1910.
Stories are a powerful force. They bring our own circumstances into sharp relief through comparison and contrast, and, at their best, they enable us to imagine the change we can affect in our own world. I know because that’s what The West Wing did for me. But here’s the encouraging part: not everyone is complying with today’s doom and gloom political pessimism. In the spirit of true cord-cutters, young people today are rejecting the “premium cable” condemnation of politics.
Young leaders are emerging onto the political scene, intent on scrapping the current plot to replace it with stories of their own making. As of 2015, The Huffington Post identified 13 state legislators in America under the age of 24. (Simple math tells us that the oldest are now 26 — no less impressive, fair to say.)
Take for example Mississippi Democrat Jeramey Anderson, born in 1992. As if representing the 110th District weren’t impressive enough, Anderson also serves as President and CEO of the Purple Knights of America, a nonprofit he founded at age 16, dedicated to mentoring adolescent males.
“Involvement starts now. It starts with being active in the political process,” Anderson told students at Sterling Aviation High School in Houston this past November. He asked, “Are you registered to vote? Is your voice being heard? If you’re not voting, then you can’t complain about what’s not going on when your voice is not being heard in the first place.”
Anderson touches on a key theme that, in all honesty, has been lost on some young people: ownership.
Look, a fleeting click, like, or share on social media… little actions that give the cover of activism, but not the commitment. It takes a real, personal investment — time, energy, and risk — to have an impact on the political stage. Become steeped in the work. Bring your full self to it. That kind of commitment is daunting, yes, but you might just surprise yourself and fall in love with the process. I did. And then you might find that, yes, you really have made things a bit better after all.
But don’t think casting ballots and running for office are the end-all be-all. Political activism is a broad umbrella under which more and more young people are finding themselves. A full one in six Americans aged 13 to 25 have participated in a protest since the 2016 election. Compare that to just one in 10 the year before. They’re calling their representatives in Congress, advocating on the local level, constructing dialogues with police in their precincts, volunteering in community-building projects. And yes, this is very much a Trump-related phenomenon, but the fact remains: the youth are entering the political fray, and they’re beginning to make themselves known.
So maybe aspirational politics aren’t welcome on TV anymore — but you know, we may be witnessing the start of something better, something far more real. It doesn’t lend itself to binge-watching, but anyone paying attention to the burgeoning youth movement in this country will be heartened and — hopefully — emboldened to work as a protagonist in the political narrative. That’s exactly the catalyst we need if we’re going to restore this country’s politics.
The West Wing may be left to syndicated repeats, but the story of the next generation of political activists is yet to be written. For all the encouraging action undertaken by young leaders thus far, there remains so much more work to do. If nothing else, their shining example offers a light at the end of our long political tunnel. Whether we reach it or not… well, that’s up to all of us.
About Amy Dacey
Amy K. Dacey currently serves as the Executive Vice President and Managing Director, Washington, D.C. Office and National Public Affairs for MWWPR. Amy is a versatile, forward-thinking, and influential leader with a history of success in providing and communicating a clear vision, setting strategic direction, and serving as a catalyst for positive change to further organizations’ missions, values, and goals.
Prior to joining MWWPR, Amy served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Democratic National Committee and the Executive Director of Emily’s List.