Not all “normals” are good, however. Part of what marks Black Lives Matter as a movement is the fact that the “normal” African-Americans live with, which most white Americans have accepted for decades, is something society only confronts when there’s horrifiying video footage. The dynamic between a desire for things to fit expectations and failing to face change and grow from it has been an ongoing problem within American culture—expressed through such things as red hats, slogans like “Making America Great Again,” and the denial of a painful present. Because whether it be a large group of idiots partying without masks in the middle of a pandemic, or hostility to protesters and explaining away racism to oppressed groups, “normal” becomes more about achieving comfort while discounting someone else’s suffering.
Pontification about what it all means leads to terms like “the new normal,” with the phrase dating back to at least the end of World War I but surging into common parlance following the Sept. 11 attacks. In practice, saying everyone is experiencing a “new normal” serves to, well, normalize things we would never usually accept but do now—for reasons which may be valid or stupid. In the years after the destruction of the World Trade Center, when the public was primed to be vigilant for the foreign terrorists who could be lurking amongst us as our neighbors, bracing for the next attack on American soil became the fearful justification for launching attacks around the planet. Daily life existed under a color-coded threat system, and Americans accepted Patriot Acts and secret prisons, all in the name of freedom. All of this was heralded as a new normal for a society which would have to accede to compromises in order to be safe. Almost two decades removed from the event, international terrorism has receded as a concern for most voters, since there’s a better chance of being killed by home-grown white supremacists than Islamic extremists, and conservatives are more worried about politically convenient boogeymen like antifa. A lot of times the incongruity of the costs we’ve endured and the stupidity inherent to it is pushed to the back of the mind with a South Park-esque cynicism that gives in to despair, so why care at all.
But every so often there comes a moment where the high ideals which came before the painful present bleed through, and the contrast of what was and what is makes us think about what could be … which brings us back to The West Wing.
Aaron Sorkin has warned against calling A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote a “reunion,” likening a television reunion to something The Brady Bunch cast would do. Instead, West Wing actors returned to their roles for a theatrical staging of the season three episode “Hartsfield’s Landing,” which was filmed at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles (with COVID-19 protocols in place). The special debuted Oct. 15 on HBO Max, and features Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Rob Lowe, and Janel Maloney returning to their old roles. Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) replaced the late John Spencer as Leo McGarry, and Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) briefly becomes Zoey Bartlet one more time, along with appearances from Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samuel L. Jackson, and even former President Bill Clinton.
During a Sept. 27, 2000 interview on PBS’ News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Sorkin explained what could be considered the central theme of the series.
SORKIN: “[The characters] are fairly heroic … That’s unusual in American popular culture, by and large. Our leaders, government people are portrayed either as dolts or as Machiavellian somehow. The characters in this show are neither. They are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they, all of them, have set aside probably more lucrative lives for public service. They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good, rather than doing well. The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education.”
Looking at it now, the series can seem naive in its beliefs about institutions, but as mentioned above, The West Wing, along with its spiritual predecessor The American President, proceeds from an idealistic, Capra-esque vision of American politics—one that believes in the positive aspects of government and, more importantly, the positive aspects of the people in government. In 2011, officials in Myanmar told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that they were watching episodes of the show in order to learn about the mechanics of democracy. During the 2012 election, articles were written which argued Sorkin had been influential in shaping not only a generation of public servants, but had inspired many young people to believe in a politician who told them “yes we can.” In short, if something like South Park drips in cynicism and apathy, The West Wing asks people to give a damn about their country and the world.
As the country shifted after the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred during the show’s third season, the series’ signature walk-and-talk preachiness, with wonky anecdotes and obscure facts, became a response to the presidency of George W. Bush. In a country that sometimes seems to equate intelligence with condescension and elevates ignorance to a virtue, the contrast of a fictional, well-educated Democratic president, surrounded by characters united in a concept of patriotic duty, was an entertaining refuge for some who were weary of a real Republican president who took the country to war through fear and Freedom Fries.
In Sorkin’s political universe, most of those in government are decent people who are trying their best to make a difference. Those with principles are victorious over those who spread lies and distortions. And all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day—no matter how controversial it might be—is the guts to say what you mean and mean what you say.
Where The West Wing praises duty, knowledge, and sacrifice, the past four years of American life have been defined by vanity, self-delusions, and stoked resentments writ large. Significant sectors of the culture have been invested in reliving a new version of a dark past by embracing lies about the present. Instead of inspiring people to serve their government, the presidency has been used to spread hate and violence. The foreign governments and peoples which once looked to the United States for leadership now either pity us, or laugh at us.
All of this is because what we called normal has been under constant attack during the Trump years. It has been pushed through a perpetual coddling of one idiot and his legion with comforting “alternative facts” attempting to bend reality to his superficial whims. The problem, though, is that one can’t spin a contagious disease into nothing. And a president—who no one believes says what he means or believes what he says—can’t be trusted to lead or motivate the public to have confidence in a better future.
In a letter Sorkin famously wrote to his daughter the day after the 2016 election, many of the themes of The West Wing are evoked, while being very prescient about the path the country was about to be dragged down, in denouncing Donald Trump and everything he represents.
The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic shitheads everywhere.
Hate was given hope.
Abject dumbness was glamorized as being “the fresh voice of an outsider” who’s going to “shake things up.” (Did anyone bother to ask how? Is he going to re-arrange the chairs in the Roosevelt Room?) For the next four years, the President of the United States, the same office held by Washington and Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R., J.F.K. and Barack Obama, will be held by a man-boy who’ll spend his hours exacting Twitter vengeance against all who criticize him (and those numbers will be legion). We’ve embarrassed ourselves in front of our children and the world.
The battle isn’t over, it’s just begun. Grandpa fought in World War II and when he came home this country handed him an opportunity to make a great life for his family. I will not hand his granddaughter a country shaped by hateful and stupid men. Your tears last night woke me up, and I’ll never go to sleep on you again.
On Nov. 3, the people of this country will choose a vision and the person they want to preside over a new normal. But this election is a war for what “normal” even means. It’s a referendum on whether the more than 200,000 people that have died, and the untold others which have suffered under this administration, did so over “hoaxes” and “fake news,” or whether the loss of those lives and all that pain was a tragic mistake that never should have happened. Election Day will be a crucible over whether the normal people wish to have is one that’s concerned with the police murders of people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
We all want to be back to normal as soon as possible. But, if we want the normal the world needs, a normal that’ll endure and help people, we’ll have to fight for it. And that’s something I learned from watching The West Wing. Cynical people might view the outlook of the series as naive, or even wrong. But there is power in voting, which is the entire point of this reunion. A vote is a choice and that choice comes with responsibility and consequences. The world we live in is the new normal we choose and tolerate. The excitement of our collective will expressed is what this is all about. Maybe it will amount to nothing. Maybe it’ll all become a mess. But in that place between hope and ballots there’s a chance, a real chance, to change the world for the better.
And therein lies the message of The West Wing: People who believe in a candidate, a philosophy, or the ideals of a country can build their own future … if they only show up and try.
Are you ready to show up and try? With Nov. 3 just days away, there’s no time like right now to help get out the vote. Sign up with the Biden-Harris campaign to make phone calls to swing state voters from the comfort of your own home, no matter where you live. All you need is a personal computer, a quiet place in your home where you can make phone calls, and a desire to kick Donald Trump out of office.