Who’s Next? How ‘The West Wing’ Influenced Pete and Beto To Run In 2020

Originally written for The College View

There are three distinct brands of politician currently enrolled in the battle to face Donald Trump as the US Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential candidate.

We have grizzled veterans with strong trade union backgrounds (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden), figures of force and integrity against the bullishness of the incumbent. We have overqualified women of the senate (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren), ready to paint themselves as competent and compassionate alternatives to the useless chauvinism of Republican Presidents past and present.

And then we have a more peculiar gang: white millennial men with an inherited arrogance of their own accomplishments; inexperienced in federal policy making but sure of their own greatness: namely sirs Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.

Anyone with a Twitter account will likely have seen more of young Beto and Pete in recent months than they have of either Senators Harris or Warren, despite their near-equal polling figures.

This duo — one a failed Texas senate candidate, the other the mayor of an Indiana city called South Bend that most people outside the US have never heard of — have latched onto a media-friendly showman image that involves a great deal of rolled-up shirtsleeves, standing on diner tables to make speeches and making vaguely pointed insults about President Trump’s intelligence.

So, one could argue, they’re effectively white versions of Barack Obama, without any of the substance. From whence have they gained this sense of entitlement?

It’s quite possibly from watching too much of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s seminal early-00s political drama that coined the concept of the ‘walk n talk’ to illustrate that it’s possible for Washington politicians to work hard for the good of the nation while also flirting wildly with their secretaries and making jokes about zoo animals.

The West Wing is an incredible piece of television; it’s entertaining and informative, hilarious and inspiring. It’s also a profoundly unrealistic vision of government; particularly post-Trump; and this is clear in the opening minutes of its first episode, as one-time teen heartthrob Rob Lowe is introduced as Sam Seaborn, Deputy Communications Director for President Josiah Bartlet, leaving the apartment of a beautiful young student he’s picked up at a bar.

On The West Wing, politics was made sexy, and this appears to be the attitude figures like Beto and Pete are longing to return to. How can they, as presidential candidates, simultaneously be James Dean and Abraham Lincoln? Or, to use a very real example of a man who embodied both, how can they be the 21st century John F Kennedy?

What they’re ignoring, however, is that The West Wing finished before the political game changer that is Twitter was even invented; when Democratic voters still had attention spans greater than 10 seconds and a candidate was expected to unpack their agenda not in a tight 280-character byte, but in a smart and thoughtful speech; the kind Aaron Sorkin scripts so eloquently in every episode of the show — depicting his fictional president as not merely a president but a poet — and the kind an anti-intellectual like Donald Trump has never had any interest in pursuing.

Beto O’Rourke makes speeches, but his speeches are not full of substantive wisdom and historical context, they are shells of inspiration, a series of buzzy quotes ready-made for the cover of Time Magazine but lacking any serious endeavour.

Perhaps, if he or his contemporaries are to truly inhabit their roles as new American heroes, they should do the obvious: hire Aaron Sorkin to write your stuff.