on Election Day in the United States, it is worth remembering this fundamental element of American history
In Season 1 Episode 19 of Aaron Sorkin’s late 90s and early aughts political and historically infused creation, The West Wing, the fleet-footed and self-aware minimized portrait of American policy is depicted in three separate but essential conversations. Deputy White House Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), takes an ambitious but under the radar endeavor of testing the waters of a hostile Republican senate leadership about the possible radical action of electing two seats to the Federal Election Commission. Normally, these seats are chosen bi-partisanly by the President — one Republican; One Democrat — and then recommended by the Senate to be confirmed, so it’s an ambitious effort of political labor.
Press Secretary C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) discovers a member of the senior staff wrote a strategy memo about the Bartlett Administration, specifically its weaknesses. From there, she undergoes an argument with senior white house reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) about the press’s role in an administration’s failures. Meanwhile, Deputy White House Communications Directors Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) spend their day with pentagon leadership about gays and lesbians in the military.
Much else happens, as is per a densely written series like West Wing, and the bulk of the episode is dedicated to the examination of a capable President to concerned with winning reelection than to actually commit to governing a nation that elected him, as noted by the episode’s title, Let Bartlet be Bartlet.
One of the more pivotal but subtle exchanges of the series and its relation to the cynical and often cruel realm of American politics can be found near the episode’s end. Seaborn is reading the pentagon a riot act about military discrimination, military-related sexual harassment cases, and other criticisms when Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos) and chairman of the joint chiefs walk into the room. As the highest-ranking military official in the room, the pentagon officials stand at attention quietly as he asks them what they think about the issue. They respond with their military uniformity logic, he agrees, but with a caveat. He reminds them that the U.S. military found African Americans to be a wrinkle in unit discipline and cohesion at one point and time.
It’s a quick moment often unremarked by the West Wing beloved, but an important one. A reminder that when progression is trying to push the country forward in favor of equality for those born different from their heterosexual peers, we had the same argument about another minority in America fifty years prior. There’s always another group left behind, another fight to be had for a country representing everyone beneath its wide umbrella — especially a country as young as ours.
A similar reminder of America’s crawling moral trajectory can be found in a more recent civics lesson by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show, Hamilton. Located near the end of the first act amidst the song, Yorktown, as the British surrender to the United States, John Laurens (Anthony Ramos) — a fierce abolitionist — sings, “black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom” as the spotlight waves up to General Washington (Christopher Jackson), who mutters, “not yet.”
It’s a reminder that while the U.S. accomplished a great deal in defeating King George III (winning their independence, creating a democracy) and much of a great deal afterward (ratifying a constitution, manifesting a financial foundation, and establishing a well-oiled economy and governmental system), the United States had a long way to go before it arrived at its promises made in the second paragraph of the declaration of independence.
Now, on Election Day in the United States, incumbent and Republican President Donald Trump prepares to square off against a steady and experienced Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden; it is worth remembering this fundamental element of American history. It is worth mentioning I am not a historian nor an expert in any regard to America’s political intricacies that have stalled or prohibited some of these dreams from becoming a reality. Neither am I suggesting America is a country of moral bankruptcy until it accomplishes these feats.
The United States has done a great deal for the world around us, such as defeating Nazism in World War II, repairing a fractured union after a civil war, innovating the world’s most remarkable technologies, creating a universal education program, and producing some of the world’s most fabulous art over the course of the 20th century. Global treaties, helping impoverished countries, and being a mega-donor to NGOs who assist those impoverished countries are apart of those accomplishments as well.
We became a global leader fundamentally and legitimately, but there is a constant reminder of our greater demons with each of those successes. In joining World War II, we also ignore the swathe of Nazi sympathizers in the United States. While we did repair a fractured union after the civil war, it came at the cost of giving in to pro-slavery terrorists’ demands and surrendering the work of abolitionists by establishing the caste system known as Jim Crow. While creating the mythic bosom of entertainment known as Hollywood, we ignored the abuses of power towards women by the men who constructed that empire.
It is a continuing process, and no country is without fault in some form or another. But America, more than anything, seems to be a country of last-second greatness. It took America 188 years to establish civil rights for black Americans and other minorities alike (not to suggest there isn’t more work to do in this field). It took America 244 years to establish one form of this civil rights act for LGBTQ individuals concerning employment discrimination. You could argue those numbers aren’t entirely accurate as LGBTQ individuals’ civil rights weren’t really on the table until the 1970s. Black civil rights weren’t really on the table until the early 20th century, as Lincoln himself wasn’t a proponent for integration but the end of slavery.
Our union must endure a long line of broken promises and unfulfilling compromises before reaching its greatest heights. Yet, we can still maintain this idealism and patriotism instilled in these renditions of American civics. Hamilton reminds us of the intelligence, bravery, and sheer gumption of our founding fathers who created a system of governance that has survived a great deal in its short lifetime. The West Wing reminds us of the patriotism it takes to serve your country, both in the military and in Washington.
They are flogging and exploitative representations that ignore the contrivances and sins of America’s past while embracing the accomplishments and servitudes of America’s recognized patriots. Every form of this style of storytelling falls into the same pitfall. Recognizing Washington’s racism and cruelness as a slave owner while ignoring his military and political leadership is a disservice to the credit deserving of our first president. All of our greatest patriots were fundamentally flawed by the times they lived in and the sins they committed. There’s an argument to be made, though, that it is a great disservice to list patriots’ names who are exclusively white — as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Rosa Parks are patriots in their own right.
No human is perfect, and no country has arrived at prosperity without committing unforgivable crimes. But with what is perhaps one of the more important elections taking place today, and the amount of political tension reaching an all-time high, it is worth remembering and reminiscing on this history.
America has partaken in a long, steady, and at times, backward walking arch towards moral correction. But we have the vote to accomplish such feats. We still have a voice in continuing this arch, shortening its arrival and maintaining its place in our nation until our children find another battle we forgot to fight. Together, our history and these slices of entertainment remind us that America is a country of accomplishments and leadership but entangled with deep-rooted flaws and system issues in need of repair. Eventually, we will arrive at the promise, and no matter which candidate is declared the victor by night’s end (or year’s end), that dream will still become a reality, even if it takes just a bit longer to get there.