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Prime Time's Political Sedatives

Is it strange to quote NBC characters at policy meetings?

A few weeks ago, I participated in a serious roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto's venerable Massey College. The subject was whether a guaranteed annual income could be a viable campaign for the left. A group of political theorists, economists and activists debated the question, divided over whether the idea was too pie in the sky.

Which is when the TV show came up. "Well, to quote a recent episode of The West Wing," one of the policy experts said, "we need to raise the level of debate in this country."

The West Wing,which had its season finale last night, comes up a lot these days. It's especially popular on the left, where it serves as a kind of hallucinatory vision of how politics could be if Bill and Hillary Clinton weren't such sellouts to the business lobby.

Writing in Salon, Jonathan V. Last has argued that The West Wing only works as drama because of its liberal bias. "There couldn't possibly be a Republican version," he writes, because conservatism, in its desire to preserve the status quo, is inherently undramatic.

It's an interesting argument, but it's not true: Conservatives do have their version of The West Wing -- it's called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and it is as much a dramatic fantasy of conservatism as The West Wing is of liberalism.

The success of both these shows has to do with profound ideological doubts coming from either end of the political spectrum. Liberals are asking themselves whether their social policies are still viable, or whether all government becomes conservative once in power. Many conservatives, meanwhile, are looking at the current economic boom, and at the growing gap between rich and poor, and asking themselves whether the invisible hand of the market -- their most sacred economic principle -- can still be trusted.

And to both these soul-searching questions, The West Wing and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire answer with a triumphant, if wholly unwarranted, "Absolutely!"

For disillusioned progressives, The West Wing is an alter-White House, a place where married political aides don't sleep with prostitutes and get caught, but where an unmarried aide sleeps with a call girl "by accident" and then spends the rest of the season helping her get through law school. Besides the call- girl plot in the very first episode, The West Wing is remarkably sexless. The characters are so obsessively concerned with how potential relationships will affect their job performances, they usually opt for arguing flirtatiously about school vouchers instead.

The only married member of the cast is the president himself, and he has so few skeletons in his closet that the West Wingers often pile into his bedroom in the middle of the night for impromptu Waltonesque policy powwows. This White House isn't consumed with frivolity; it is too busy fighting all the good fights Bill Clinton won't touch: getting gays in the military, banishing racism from drug policy, radicalizing the Supreme Court, kicking soft money out of campaign finance.

The only issues on which The West Wing goes centrist are economic ones: current White House monetary policy is just fine, thank you very much, and free trade needs to speed up, not slow down.

But why should the dream White House bother itself with money matters? The West Wing is here to address our collective crisis of confidence in government and leadership, not in economics. That crisis is left to another show entirely, on a competing network.

As we all know, trickle-down economics is experiencing something of a drainage problem: No matter how much wealth is created, most of it is getting plugged up at the top, in the hands of merged corporate giants and their stockholders. But for three nights a week on ABC, money doesn't trickle down to the masses, it comes pouring onto their heads in great cash waterfalls. As the name of the show suggests, the mere act of wanting to be a millionaire is all it takes.

On Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you don't have to be some computer whiz kid or a cast member on Friends to be one of the winners in our winners-and-losers new economy. All you have to do is just answer a couple of questions, and not hard ones either, but staggeringly easy ones.

This resurrection of the 1950s American Dream was rudely interrupted a few weeks ago during a battle between cable provider Time Warner and the show's parent company, Disney. Theirs was a fight over real money, not loose change, and it led to ABC's signal being pulled out of millions of households. The masses were thrown into darkness, their theatre of petty cash suspended, while the Great Gods of Consolidation hurled lightning bolts at each other. Finally, Regis, the capitalist wizard of the people, returned, and all was well.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The West Wing play similar roles for their respective ideologies: that of political sedative. Two American lullabies, each perfect in its own way.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.


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