As someone who only started to develop an interest in politics in college, I have just now discovered the greatness that is The West Wing. I’m only in the first season and, while this is a relatively old show (it ran from 1999 to 2006), I still feel like I can relate to it—pagers, bulky computers, and all. Usually, this isn’t the case for me. I rarely start watching shows that aired more than a few years ago because I find it hard to fully immerse myself in something that doesn’t feel like it could apply to me. The West Wing is different though, and for a while I couldn’t figure out why. Well, yesterday it hit me. The reason that I feel such a connection to the characters and storyline is because, even 15 years later, the issues and problems they are discussing are the same that we face today.
In just what I’ve watched of the first season, three issues have already come up that have also been discussed in the past month of our present news cycle: campaign finance reform, mandatory minimums for powder versus crack cocaine, and the death penalty. While we have made significant progress on other issues they discuss (I watched an episode last night where they were strategizing about how to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), it’s amazing how many of the issues are still relevant today, over a decade later.
But why is this the case? Why are we still facing the same issues in 2014 that we were in 1999? Well for one, many of these challenges are complicated. They’re nonpartisan issues with seemingly only partisan solutions. Increased polarization and constant political fear have made it nearly impossible to make any real change. Another reason is that progress on these big issues, in general, is slow. While we’ve been able to make strides on certain aspects of these issues and increased dialogue around the topics, we still have not been able to solve many of the problems as a whole. For example, there has been some progress on gay rights issues, such as repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but the LGBT community is still fighting for other rights. Just like desegregating schools and electing a black President doesn’t mean we live in a post-racial society, merely achieving change on one aspect of an issue doesn’t mean it will disappear from public discussion.
So what do we see for the future? How many of the issues that we faced in 1999 will we finally be able to check off of our to-do list? My guess? Not many. With a current political system so marred by polarization, finger pointing, and mudslinging, we have yet to make progress on even the simplest of issues. And with issues like the death penalty, campaign finance reform, and mandatory minimums among some of the most complicated and divisive, it’s likely that we will still be discussing how to fix them even another 15 years from now.
Featured image via http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_MAGAZINE/winter2004/west_wing.html