I've been watching a lot (perhaps all would be a better term here!) of The West Wing recently and it has got me thinking a lot about the political process. On one hand the show gives the feeling that it's a real insider view of the Whitehouse, and consequently gives me great faith in the people running nations: they're smart, they care about the issues they're debating, they work hard. These are the kinds of people I'd put my trust in to run something because, if nothing else, the political process is about trust. On the other hand I can't imagine these characters as real people. Surely they know too much, surely they work too hard? Surely, if all our politicians and their aides were like this they'd be permanently knackered and unable to make any kind of informed decisions? Where is their time for play and sleep? And, if all politics is like this surely we'd have created some kind of utopia by now, these people really seem to know what they're doing. But compare the progressive policies in the show with the Bush government and things don't look so rosy. Compare the work ethic with the recent survey reporting how most British MPs spend their time – disproportionately split between working for the state and private directorships/property deals/writing etc. This comparison hardly inspires confidence, although it does suggest one of the key selling points of the show, like the X-Files we want to believe.
Getting further into the nitty-gritty I'm also worried about the power balance the show implies. Is it really the case that a few close advisors to the president of America can create policy? Although they might be the best advisors in the world it doesn't reflect too favourably on democracy that all of the checks and balances put in place to stop the concentration of power can't prevent this cadre from exorcising their own personal demons. And if this sounds like a dramatic license in the show just consider Iraq – once Bush and Blair and their inner circles were convinced there was nothing the rest of us could do to stop them, be we cabinet ministers or protestors on the streets.
Another idea that comes across in the show is the sheer width and breadth of the issues debated, anything from foreign policy to tax reform. It makes me wonder how much we really know, and the answer seems to be: not much. We happily read the papers and spit out our comments about the issues of the day, but have we read the reports from the relevant government bodies, NGOs, indent experts, personal advisors, lobbyist etc? No, so what makes us think we can have such informed, correct, views? Intuition must have a lot to do with it, but you can't run a country on intuition (although sometimes I think that policies are mostly intuition – the new control orders being a good case in point). There is simply a lot to know, and unless it is your full-time occupation to know this stuff how can we expect to be able to make a fully informed judgement? Which doesn't make me want to trust the government anymore, but does make me want to research the issues that I care about more thoroughly. Perhaps if they made a real fly on the wall documentary about parliament I could spend as much time watching it as I do the West Wing and glean more of an understanding into the real world?
A final, distressing, focus of the show is the media spotlight. I suppose this reflects everything I've just talked about – the complexity, the range of issues, the commitment involved – because all we see of this process are the few stories that appear in the paper or on TV. How many decisions are made that we never even notice? How much of the miniature of governance do we take for granted, how much do we assume? Do we have anyway of knowing except by taking time out to pursue full-time research into the matter? Do we not only trust our politicians too much but our reporters too? And how distressing is it that even the most vital policies can be over-shadowed by reports on the personal life of our MPs? Would I rather read about a policy shift in housing or which MP is having an affair? The latter will sell most papers, but it is to everyone's detriment that it does.
I want to be able to trust our government. I want to believe they're as capable as their fictional counterparts, I understand that running a country is hard. But, despite this knowledge of a lack of knowledge, I don't. Further, I wonder if I ever could trust any government, even if it was one I voted for, because I know what people are like.