I have not seen, but have read about a recent programme on British television, which made the point that the American presidential election closely mirrors the last season of The West Wing. For those of you who are not West Wing fans, here’s what happens in Season 7: a decent, experienced but old Republican senator is nominated as his party’s candidate. His opponent is an ethnic (Latino) Democratic Congressman with much less experience but who therefore holds out the promise of change. The two candidates are evenly matched and their one debate is a draw with neither managing to convert the other’s supporters.
Stranger than fiction: Will John McCain (right) lose the elections like Alan Alda’s character Arnie Vinick in the series The West Wing?
Then, a few weeks from polling day, something unexpected happens. The Republican is a long-standing champion of nuclear power. So, when a nuclear reactor develops a leak, his policies are held responsible. He protests that nuclear power is generally safe and that a single accident at a nuclear plant should not be held against him. But it is too late. The Latino wins the election, becoming America’s first ethnic president.
You can see the parallels. For Arnie Vinick, the old Republican senator, we have decent, upright John McCain. For Matt Santos, the ethnic outsider who is a surprising choice for the Democratic nomination, we have Barack Obama.
And while there hasn’t been a nuclear accident, at least so far, there has been a relatively unexpected occurrence. The virtual collapse of Wall Street and the damage it has done the American economy have come to haunt John McCain. Despite his protestations to the contrary, voters treat him as one of those responsible — after all, isn’t he part of the Republican old guard that sang the praises of free markets?
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It’s possible to carry this too far but the parallels are undeniable. My guess is that the only reason the makers of The West Wing who forever sought to push the envelope did not pick a black presidential candidate and opted for a Latino instead was because it seemed too far-fetched to imagine that a black outsider had any chance of winning the presidency. But even so, the parallels remain. In The West Wing, black voters are reluctant to support Matt Santos because blacks don’t like Latinos. At this election, Obama has had problems with the Latino vote (which went en masse to Hillary Clinton in the primaries) because, well, Latinos don’t like blacks.
I sometimes wonder whether any television scriptwriter could have dreamt up Obama’s successful nomination victory. Think about it: Here is a black man (well, half-black anyway) who has spent only one term in the Senate; whom nobody had heard of before the primaries began; whose middle name is Hussein; and whose last name rhymes with Osama. Who would have given him any chance of winning the nomination, especially when he had the Democratic establishment, in the form of Hillary and Bill Clinton, ranged against him?
My theory on this is also television related. I reckon that one reason why Americans no longer seem so surprised by the idea of a black president is because of President Palmer.
Well, if you’re asking me that you’re clearly no fan of 24.
While the action series is compulsively watchable and can be terrifyingly gripping, it has never been noted — unlike, say, The West Wing — for its cerebral content. But I reckon that it has played some role in shaping American attitudes during the traumatic years of the 21st century. The hero of 24 is a federal agent called Jack Bauer who thinks nothing of imposing the most extreme forms of torture on suspects. The message is: If you want to save America, then it’s fine to break the rules and to ignore diplomatic niceties, human rights, etc.
In the first season of 24, Bauer foils a plot to kill a black presidential candidate called David Palmer. In later seasons, Palmer actually gets to be president and is the very model of a perfect commander-in-chief. He is inspirational, intelligent and radiates integrity. In contrast, at least one of his white successors is a shifty Nixonian type.
My theory is that Americans got so used to the idea of a black man in the Oval Office because of 24 and President Palmer, that it did not seem that unlikely for Obama to be able to take the fictional Palmer’s place.
Of course, this is a massive oversimplification. I’m sure there are many other reasons — most of them considerably more substantial — to explain Obama’s success. But I fear that we ignore popular culture at our peril. It’s films, books and TV that create the stereotypes in our minds far more effectively than real life ever can.
For instance, throughout the 1960s the only significant work of fiction that put a black man in the Oval Office was Irving Wallace’s best-selling novel The Man in which the black president pro tem of Congress gets to be the commander-in-chief only because everybody else in the line of succession is wiped out. Such is the atmosphere of hostility that the poor man is persecuted by his own party, is charged with rape and impeached.
Four decades later, America could be only a few weeks away from having a legitimately elected black president. Among the factors that have helped shape public opinion is the role of popular media which now pooh-poohs scare scenarios such as the one created by Wallace.
Or take another example. My all-time favourite film about American politics is 1972’s The Candidate in which Robert Redford plays the charismatic, good-looking guy who is pushed into politics by a machine that moulds his policies according to polls and manipulates the media.
When it was released, The Candidate was regarded as a far-fetched work of fiction. Today, it would be treated as a documentary. All American political campaigns are run that way now.
So, who knows, in a month or so from now, a black president may well move from fiction to the front pages.
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