During the pandemic many of us have spent a little time binge watching either our favorite programs from years past or perhaps series that we missed out on when we were busier. I’ve done a little binge watching myself.
One of the first series I indulged in was The West Wing, a well-known show that ran from 1999 to 2006. I had seen most of it when it originally ran but had not watched it since. I was struck, coming back almost twenty years later, at how so many of the issues the characters struggled to solve on the show back then are still with us today, including immigration, gun violence, education, and of course foreign policy struggles.
But the real beauty of the show was how it humanized the people of the West Wing and gave us a peek into what their lives might be like. None of the characters got it right all the time, but they were portrayed as hard working, dedicated public servants who really wanted to move the country forward.
Not only is this an award-winning series that still captures our attention and seems as timely as ever, but it is one that, anecdotally speaking, has devoted fans on both sides of the political aisle. I have never met anyone, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent or otherwise who was watched this show and not liked it – a lot!
What fascinates me is that the same can be said of House of Cards, a series that ran from 2013-2018. This is a series that I had heard a lot about but hadn’t had a chance to watch. House of Cards is also a look behind the scenes of political power in Washington, DC, but it has a very different take. Instead of portraying characters who truly have the public interest at heart, the only thing these characters care about is power for power’s sake, and they will do seemingly anything to get it, hold it, and wield it. (The only exception to this being a few reporters who try to uncover what is really happening.) It is a much darker view of the political landscape, to say the least.
The two series could not be more different, and yet they have both endured in their popularity among all kinds of people. Many of the same people who love one series love the other as well.
Which, because I believe so strongly that civility is a value essential to both government and communities, brings me to a somewhat disturbing question. There have long been debates (and no doubt will continue to be) about whether what comes out of Hollywood reflects society or influences it; leads it or follows it. It seems to me it does both, but it may be particularly helpful to consider the dynamic unfolding in the United States with these two series as our backdrop.
What kind of government/country do we want? The West Wing version or House of Cards? Were/are these two shows a reflection of us, or a projection of who are becoming? Perhaps we should be paying attention to how much the depiction of White House politics changed over the course of a few short years.
I don’t have a lot of answers here, but we all need to think deeper about who we are and where we are headed than the next election cycle, as important as it might be. We need to build core social values that allow us a common identity even in the midst of our differences. And civility needs to be one of them.