“The West Wing,” a critically-acclaimed political drama that aired from 1999 to 2006, is more than just a nostalgia trip that reminds viewers of a time when pagers were a thing. In recent years, it’s become almost therapeutic — a way to remind ourselves that politicians can be honest, good-hearted and strive to do what’s best for the people they serve.
The show seems to exist in an alternate timeline: one with a Democratic president and a group of starry-eyed policy wonks. That being said, there are certain issues and episodes that keep it grounded in reality. There’s now an odd dichotomy in the show between the plot points that are so idealistic they’re unfathomable to a post-2016 election viewer, and the plot points that seem like they were written last week instead of 20 years ago. In this column, I want to talk about the latter, highlighting parallels between “The West Wing” and recent news stories.
With the conclusion of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary coming up, it feels like an appropriate time to talk about “Opposition Research”: season six, episode 11 of “The West Wing.” The episode follows Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) as he travels to New Hampshire with Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) to start the latter’s presidential campaign. A significant plot point in the episode is when Josh discovers a statement Santos made eight years prior about the New Hampshire primary:
JOSH: “You said the New Hampshire primary shouldn’t go first because, quote, ‘The state’s as diverse as a Mayflower reunion.’”
SANTOS: “That’s a funny line.”
JOSH: “Yeah. We got a state full of Mayflower descendants laughing.”
While campaigning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in November 2019, Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said, “Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people, but they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.” Secretary Castro is right. Although the state is becoming increasingly diverse, Iowa is still 90.7% white, while New Hampshire is 93.2% white, according to the Census Bureau. In comparison, white people make up 76.5% of the U.S. population.
Clearly, not much has changed since “Opposition Research” first aired 15 years ago. The parallels between the two Latino Democratic presidential candidates are striking, but there is a clear divergence in their stories: In “The West Wing” universe, Congressman Santos goes on to win the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency; Secretary Castro dropped out of the race this January. Both make a credible point. It’s important to ask whether two of the least racially diverse states should so greatly affect the outcome of the primaries. Although it is a slightly controversial issue, I think Secretary Castro — and Congressman Santos on the show — were right in bringing it up. Making people question their preexisting ideas and beliefs isn’t a bad idea, especially in an election year like this one.
See you next week, Tufts. To quote “The West Wing”: What’s next?