JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
This is, admittedly, way out of left field. I am about as green as they come in policy work, and even more so in television critique, but their intersection provides a rare opportunity for commentary. I suppose this could be considered a “meta” moment. As an organization, GW Roosevelt has had a number of campaigns, events, and discussions over the last semester and year, and as we sit at the crossroads and look toward the future, some self-reflection is always appropriate. If you’ll indulge the levity, there may be something worthwhile to come.
When we emerge from the crypts of policy analysis and plop down in front of the tube, few shows seem to tie intimately to the rewarding, if less-marketable, world of public policy. There aren’t many chase scenes here. The two do meet, on occasion, and in doing so offer a useful representation of reality to hold up to our own. It’s a new year, and in the spirit of setting a moral course for the semester, I think there are two television shows worth examining – The Wire, for depicting a world where plucky, bright-eyed idealists can (and often do) fail, and The West Wing, for showing that they can succeed.
The Wire is a show that deals intimately, intensively, and sometimes uncomfortably with institutional failure and the corruptive effect this process can have on well-intentioned people working within these systems. David Simon’s cross-section of mid-2000s Baltimore artfully and masterfully showcases the parallels between institutions formal and informal on both sides of the law, and offers ambiguity and even bold-faced cynicism where other programs generally adhere to a good-bad dichotomy. It is a show praised for its realism, and is darker and gloomier than case-a-week police procedurals for this reason. Successes are often piecemeal or delayed, and failure is rampant.
There are people motivated by greed and altruism, anger and kindness, within every institution the show deals with, be it the drug trade, schools, or the police force. The characters with good intentions do not always win, and they often get trapped or marginalized for not playing the game the way it is designed to be played. Politics--racial and personal --work desperately to keep the system intact. It is unbelievably hard to create change that sticks in The Wire’s Baltimore, and the archetypal roles remain in place as their inhabitants shift. This is not meant to be dissuasive; in fact, the intractability of the status quo itself makes good policy paramount. However, in not drinking the Kool-Aid of believing in some sort of karmic balance propping up the forces of justice, the show offers a realistic, if cynical, guidebook to municipal malfeasance.
On the other hand, The West Wing covers the ups and downs of the administration of fictional Democratic President Jed Bartlet, and his core group of advisors. The West Wing is one of the best shows about American politics ever made because it recognizes and draws the realistic distinction between politics and policy that other acclaimed programs, like Scandal and House of Cards, smooth over. That it deals intimately with the plodding, often mundane process of writing and implementing policy makes the show fun to watch for people like ourselves, but also useful in considering how to move forward.
As Bartlet declares, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” for, as Will Bailey responds, “It’s the only thing that ever has.” This is fundamentally true, and it is the spiritual cornerstone for ours and other student groups seeking systemic change. This is where watching The West Wing can be an inspirational experience, as, even through the successes and failures of the administration, progress is made incrementally. The good guys win more often than they lose. In our world of legislative intransigence, bureaucratic quagmire, and sometimes unbelievably archaic institutional proceedings, this measured hope is necessary.
Critically, both shows deal with idealists who really are trying to make change. The Wire’s McNulty, Bunk and the detectives trying to focus on high-level crime, Colvin and his attempts at drug decriminalization, and Pryzbylewski and his curricular priorities exemplify people fighting back against a system that is crushingly corruptive and misaligned. The West Wing follows Josh, CJ, Toby, and the rest of the senior staff as they attempt to find progress amid compromise, setbacks, and even failure. There are key lessons to be learned here. While the outcome for these sets of characters is largely different, the methodical process that they go through is surely valuable.
The point, I suppose, of all this TV talk is this: neither show is completely right, but both are useful. In truth, our sphere is probably somewhere in between gritty Baltimore and dignified Washington, and neither failure nor success is guaranteed. Institutional forces can be, and often are, incredibly hard-headed and unjust. Policy – especially progressive policy – demands both pragmatic concerns and an overpowering desire to see things get better, to see the immutable status quo made fluid, and molded for the better. We must waterproof our hope with awareness and realism if we want to make policy that lasts, and works. These are two of the best shows ever made, for my money, for artistic and dramatic value. For policy wonks seeking to change the way the world works, however, I think they are absolutely essential.
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