Language and Politics
Agonistic Discourse in The West Wing
Samuel A. Chambers
"Speech is what makes man a political being."
"...politics never gets things right, over, and done with. Th[is] conclusion
is not nihilistic but radically democratic."
"The seal [on the dollar bill] is meant to be unfinished because this
country is meant to be unfinished. We are meant to keep doing better, we're
meant to keep discussing and debating?"
Jeff Breckinridge (The West Wing)
The most straightforward way to get at the politics of The West Wing
would seem to be to assimilate the politics of the television drama about American
politics to the terms of American politics and current political discourse.
Thus, we are left with questions about whether or not The West Wing is
left wing and if so to what extent.
Quite a bit can be said on this issue, especially when one considers the political
affiliations of Martin Sheen, playing, some would say, the president that the
American left would have liked Bill Clinton to be. Mine will not be an effort
to reject or refute such work, but I would suggest that this approach to finding
the politics of The West Wing-while not necessarily invalid-cannot do
justice to the political potential lodged sometimes rather deeply within the
text of the show. For it turns out, upon close inspection, that this text acquires
numerous layers as the show and its characters grow throughout the first season
and into the second. In this essay I will argue that the text of The West
Wing exceeds the somewhat narrow terms of contemporary American political
discourse; as such, the show may not only widen the American political spectrum
but also open up the space of the political.
Accomplishing this task requires two related shifts in emphasis. First, I
will focus my argument not upon the broad political positions that the Bartlett
administration takes up over the course of the season, but on the textual implications
of one specific episode-"Six Meetings Before Lunch." Making this shift
requires me to distance my analysis from other approaches to this episode. Second,
I want to forward a reading of this episode that places it not in dialogue with
the terms of American political discourse that I have mentioned above, but positions
it in the context of broader questions raised in the realm of contemporary political
theory. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate the extent to which both this specific
episode, and the show in general, operate beyond, or at the margins of, American
politics. Through a close analysis of the ongoing dialogues that anchor "Six
Meetings Before Lunch" I will argue for a conception of political discourse
that challenges both the deliberative democrats' notion of language as a medium
of communicative action oriented toward the goal of consensus, and a pluralist
theory that would define politics as the result of bartering and compromise
(a model that does play a central role in many other episodes). What emerges
through the interplay of continuing discussions in this episode is an open-ended
model of political discourse not governed by teleological endpoints, but serving
to maintain a space for plural politics. My specific arguments about the implications
of the episode will serve to shore up my general point that The West Wing's
political possibilities greatly exceed the questions of left and right, as Aaron
Sorkin and his characters grapple with questions of political agency, legitimacy,
and the very space of the political.
Kissing and Telling
To throw my approach to the show into sharper relief, I would like to begin
by differentiating my argument from one of the numerous efforts to discuss The
West Wing precisely in terms of contemporary American politics. I will bypass
the various attempts to measure the degree of left-leaning ideology in the show,
and turn instead to the reviews provided at "Findlaw Entertainment."
Jeff Riley, a former White House staffer, who worked in the west wing for both
the Bush and Clinton administrations, writes weekly reviews of the show for
Findlaw. Riley seeks to use his own experience to provide a lens of realism
for the television portrayal of the White House staff, and therefore his criticisms
of the show almost always center on Sorkin's dramatic departures from "actual
political reality." Lest they forget his subject position, Riley continually
reminds his readers that he really worked in the west wing and "that"
would never happen; "that" varies from what the president would say,
where the press secretary would walk, and what furniture the staff would sit
on, to the strategy of the staff and their actions in politics. Along the way,
it sometimes seems hard to discern the difference between Riley's efforts at
showing the viewers the reality (or lack thereof) of the show and sharing with
them his own extensive political experience.
Riley criticizes The West Wing when it doesn't mimic the actual practices
of American politics. But it is precisely at that point of departure, for me,
that the show starts to get interesting. Riley's review of "Six Meetings
Before Lunch" exemplifies the significant divergences in our approaches.
This episode centers on two main dialogues: one between Josh, the Deputy Chief
of Staff, and Jeff, the President's nominee for head of the Civil Rights Division
of the Department of Justice; and the other between Sam, Deputy Communications
Director, and Mallory, a grade school teacher, the daughter of the President's
Chief of Staff, and a woman Sam hopes to soon be dating. Mallory and Sam hold
a series of heated discussions over the topic of school vouchers, as Mallory
has recently discovered a position paper (her father seems to have left it lying
around) written by Sam that argues strongly in favor of vouchers. Josh and Jeff
debate the issue of monetary reparations for slavery, for it seems that Jeff
has recently lent his name to the dust jacket of a scholarly book that ardently
defends reparations. The various stages of these two dialogues drive this episode,
but interspersed between those discussions we witness other less momentous staff
discussions (how to get a pair of new Panda bears for the National Zoo), and
we watch a series of key developments in the romantic relationship of Charlie
(the President's "body man" or personal aide) and Zoë (the President's
daughter). Zoë is white; Charlie is black.
Riley focuses heavily upon the relationship between Zoë and Charlie, particularly
the rather passionate kiss they share in the halls of the west wing. He somewhat
casually dismisses the dialogues, and does so at just those points where they
start to depart from the typical practices of what "really goes on in the
west wing of the White House"-the focal point for Riley since he has actually
worked there (and while I see no reason to dismiss Riley's perspective because
he has worked in the White House, I also do not really see why that makes him
any more of an expert about the show than numerous other potential commentators).
Riley tosses aside the potentially political aspects of the episode that
try to do more than follow the actual daily practices of life in the west wing.
But he emphasizes those aspects of the episode that deal with social life-something
which goes on perhaps alongside those practices but which does not prove central
to them. Indeed, because "Six Meetings Before Lunch" spends so much
time outside of those daily practices, Riley characterizes the overall episode
as "a pretty weak show." And the weakness lies in the dialogues, which
Riley describes as "stilted and staged" sounding as if they were produced
by "members of opposing high school debate teams." 
But Riley turns out to be much more than just a critic and I wish to emphasize
that his treatment of the show remains quite even-handed. While challenging
Sorkin for his lack of political realism, Riley clearly enjoys the show and
finds much to praise within it. For example, he writes: "The West Wing
uses [Zoë and Charlie's] love affair to dramatize both the closed-minded
and unsophisticated attitudes of some of our society toward interracial dating."
Riley's rather ironic mistake, from the perspective of my reading of the episode,
lies in his decision to turn his focus toward questions of social norms (which
are not, for that reason, unimportant) and away from politics.
Unconsciously or not, Riley's review of "Six Meetings Before Lunch"
has the effect of translating the issue of race out of the scene of politics
and into a social and cultural problematic. Riley refuses to discuss the very
much political (and unpopular for that reason) issue of reparations; he turns
instead to the socio-cultural question of interracial dating. I have no desire
whatsoever to downplay the significance of the portrayal of this issue on television,
nor underestimate the radical approach that The West Wing takes (I agree
with Riley on this point, "that was some kiss"), but my focus here
is on the politics of the show. And I fear that Riley's approach depoliticizes
The West Wing's treatment of race not only by turning away from the question
of reparations but also by suggesting that the issue of racial reparations proves
either inappropriate or misplaced in a show about American politics. Certainly
it seems unlikely that reparations will make it onto the national political
agenda anytime soon, but what effect does Riley's argument have in suggesting
that reparations ought to stay off even the agenda of a television show about
Part of the answer to this last question turns on deeper theoretical questions
of politics and language. Riley, and perhaps many other viewers, sees something
inherently uninteresting and inherently nonpolitical about two people sitting
down and talking to one another. Such events only happen, it would seem, unnaturally;
hence Riley's characterization of the dialogues in this episode as "staged,"
as if such things only occur when they are set up to do so. But what
if we find within the conception of political dialogue presented by Sorkin a
certain alternative vision of democracy, a vision that exceeds the currently
rather eviscerated scope of American politics? What if political discourse holds
the possibility of reconfiguring democratic politics? Any beginnings of a response
to these sorts of questions requires us to look exactly where Riley says not
to: the dialogues.
Political Speech and Deliberation
I want to turn to the dialogues within this episode both for their political
content-which I insist should not be dismissed simply because of its lack of
practicality-and for the political implications of their form. In other
words, I want to argue that within Sorkin's "staging" of the dialogues
in this episode we can locate another set of political possibilities. It is
here that I hope to describe the "discursive politics" of The West
Wing. To do so, I need first to outline briefly the dominant model of political
speech within contemporary political theory, for recent contemporary political
thought has been marked by a return to language and an emphasis on the importance
of political speech.
Theorists of deliberative democracy have shifted their attention to political
speech as a way to respond to some of the most troubling uncertainties of the
late-modern social and political world. Deliberative democrats have a number
of significant worries about political life in the twenty-first century, but
what bothers them most is the perceived gap between morality and politics-the
space between mere opinion on the one hand, and true knowledge, on the other.
Democratic theorists of deliberation accept the fact that the political world
can no longer be ruled directly by a specific political morality. In other words,
morality or knowledge of transcendental truths can no longer serve as the foundation
for politics. But how, they then ask, can we make sure that politics remains
governed by some sort of general knowledge or morality? If religious or
scientific truths no longer serve as the basis for politics, then how do we
make sure that the political sphere does not fall into the "anything goes"
abyss of relativistic nihilism?
Answers to such vexing questions lie, according to the deliberative democrat
par excellence, Jürgen Habermas, in a reconstruction of Kantian
moral theory through the medium of intersubjective communication. Habermas disavows
a positivist social science that would attempt to ground the validity of political
or social norms in a crude correspondence with political morality.
Nevertheless, Habermas still wishes to close the gap between knowledge and opinion,
to seek some justificatory grounding for normative claims. Kantian moral theory
appears to provide just such justification, through a philosophy of subjective
universalism. That is, Kant grounds universal moral (and therefore political)
principles in the "thinking ego"
-in the structure of the individual will and in the categorical maxim to act
in such a way that our actions could serve as a universal principle for all
human beings. But Kantian moral universalism,
which might appear to offer a beacon of light to the darkness of late-modern
politics, fails because it turns the dialogue of politics into a monologue of
the subject's will. On its own, Kantian moral theory eliminates human plurality,
without which there can be no politics. This is why Kantianism has to be reconstructed
by the deliberative democrats.
They accomplish this final task by turning to a conception of language and
dialogue that can restore human plurality to Kantian morality. Habermas wishes
to redeem normative claims to truth, guiding principles for political action,
not through the Kantian monologue but dialogically, through intersubjective
communication. And Habermas insists that language provides the very medium through
which to validate political norms. He writes: "the idea of coming to a
rationally motivated mutual understanding is to be found in the very structure
of language." In attempting to
coordinate their actions communicatively, individuals are able to "master"
the structure of language from within it. Language for Habermas plays a crucial
role for politics, because it serves the needs of political actors as a principle
of guidance: "language is thereby introduced as a mechanism for
coordinating action." When conceptualized
in this matter, language can bridge the gap between morality and politics, between
knowledge and opinion.
Social norms can be validated through Habermas' model of communicative action,
in which political actors use language as an instrument for the purposes of
reaching agreement and taking action. This model of communicative rationality
that can guide politics presupposes a rather specific conception of language;
according to Habermas the inherent structure of language is oriented toward
consensus. Habermas sets up the following criterion for political action: a
political norm shall be considered morally valid if it would meet with the free
and consensual "approval of all affected in their capacity as participants
in practical discourse."
Habermas insists upon this natural mechanism of language to direct human beings
toward consensus: "what raises us out of nature is the only thing whose
nature we can know: language. ...Our first sentence expresses unequivocally
the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus."
Given this essential structure of language, political speech seeks consensus,
and intersubjectively produced consensus provides us with the crucial principle
that makes it possible to validate political norms rationally, yet without
relying upon totalizing, metaphysical worldviews that are off-limits in disenchanted,
secular, twenty-first century politics.
In other words-those of Seyla Benhabib, another key figure in the theory of
deliberative democracy-public dialogue provides "a procedure for ascertaining
intersubjective validity in the public realm."
Political principles can be justified through a process of dialogue that strips
those principles of their subjective element (their confinement to the realm
of mere opinion) and allows them to aspire to the level of universality (the
realm of truth). Benhabib calls this understanding of political speech an "authentic
process of public dialogue," which has the effect of producing valid and
justified political consensus. That is, public dialogue oriented toward
consensus produces legitimate politics-"the validity rather than the social
currency of a norm is the determining ground of...action."
The view of political speech that emerges from this body of thought has a number
of striking and salient features. Most significant among them may be the following:
the deliberative democrats elevate language to a vaunted place within politics.
Language, in their theory, cannot be presupposed or dismissed as something simply
incident to the process of political negotiation and bartering. The deliberative
democrats thereby reject a pluralist model of politics, one that would take
political outcomes to be merely the result of free competition among rival interest
groups. Language, instead, must be understood according to the deliberative
democrats as a tool of guidance for politics, and politics, in turn, must be
identified as a search for agreement, consensus, and coordinated human action.
Language serves the supreme function in politics of "form[ing] a common
will in a communication directed to reaching agreement." 
The final goal of all political dialogue must always be agreement and, eventually,
pure consensus. Indeed, since the inherent structural telos of language proves
to be mutual understanding, how could political dialogue aim at anything else?
Habermas spells out this point with some emphasis, arguing not only that agreement
serves as the goal of political speech but also that such agreement proves to
be a self-fulfilling telos: "the power of agreement-oriented communication
...is an end in itself."
Consensus serves not just as the telos of political speech but of politics writ
This transformation of politics through the medium of speech leads us-the name
is no accident-to a more deliberative conception of democracy. But the particular
model of democracy (its contours already appear obvious from the above discussion)
that the deliberative democrats defend concerns me less than two other specific
implications of their work. First, they increase the relevance and heighten
the role of language for politics, and second, they articulate one very specific
and clearly delineated conception of political speech. I want to take the paradigmatic
model of political speech that we find in this dominant thread in contemporary
political thought and use it as a point of reference for the conception of political
discourse that emerges in the dialogues of "Six Meetings Before Lunch."
Discourse and Democracy
More precisely, I want to argue that Sorkin's vision of political discourse
as it emerges within this episode grants a key role to language and speech in
contemporary politics while it simultaneously rejects and refutes
the deliberative democrats' inherent goal of consensus. And, I will show, it
thereby implicitly surpasses their model of democracy. To try to make good on
bold claims such as these I want now to turn to a close reading of the dialogues
themselves, to plumb them for their political possibilities. I first need, briefly,
to summarize the content and movement of the dialogues before turning to a closer
investigation of the conception of discourse and democracy within them.
The key subtext of the dialogue between Sam (Deputy Communications Director)
and Mallory (school teacher and daughter of the Chief of Staff) on school vouchers
and public education lies in their mutually-acknowledged and mutually-shared
attraction. Their discussion begins on the evening of the Senate nomination
of the White House's candidate to fill a seat on the Supreme Court. Sam and
the rest of the staff have been working even longer hours than normal trying
to get this difficult nomination through, and Sam plans for this evening to
be his first real date with Mallory, and in general his "day of jubilee."
Mallory crushes those expectations by beginning the dialogue with this line:
"I despise you and everything you stand for." It seems that Leo, the
Chief of Staff, has shared with his daughter Mallory a position paper written
by Sam defending a school vouchers policy. Initially, Sam tries to deflect attention
away from the entire political debate and focus on their planned date, but Mallory
has no patience for such a strategy.
Instead, after plans for both the date and the celebration have been quashed,
Mallory returns to Sam's office the next day to continue the discussion on purely
professional terms; "I decided to see you during your office hours,"
she says. After much provocation from Mallory, who vigorously defends the value
of public education and the absolute necessity of putting more federal funds
into it, Sam finally takes up in dialogue the position articulated in the paper.
He unleashes this speech:
Public education has been a public policy for disaster for forty years. Having
spent around $4 trillion on public schools since 1965, the result has been a
steady and inexorable decline in every measurable standard of student performance,
to say nothing of health and safety. But don't worry about it because the U.S.
House of Representatives is on the case. I feel better already.
Their debate grows only more heated from here, with Mallory finding it hard
not to be offended that a staff member of a Democratic White House (not to mention
someone she had once been inclined to date) could possibly hold such ideas.
Sam rails on against rich "liberals" who send their own kids to private
schools while defending a public education system that offers nothing to poor
children. Just when it seems that disaster, not consensus, can be the only result
of this dialogue, Sam and Mallory decide to take a break for lunch. But before
doing so, Mallory insists they stop by her father's office. Sam explains to
Leo: "she says she always asks her father's permission before she has lunch
with fascists." At this point, Leo informs Mallory that Sam actually opposes
school vouchers, but it is his job to write papers that take up the other side's
position. Sam explains in a speech to mirror the one above:
Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.
We don't need little changes, we need gigantic changes. Schools should be palaces;
the competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making
six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and
absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That's
my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.
This speech brings the dialogue to an end, as Sam and Mallory depart for lunch-perhaps
their first date?
In overlapping and intersecting scenes in this episode the viewer witnesses
the other main dialogue, that between Josh (Deputy Chief of Staff) and Jeff
(Department of Justice nominee). Josh's job is to assure that Jeff's nomination
makes it through the Senate Judiciary Committee safely and uneventfully-a job
made much more difficult now that key Republican members of that committee have
been made aware of Jeff's words of praise on the back of a recently-released
book favoring monetary reparations for slavery. Josh opens the conversation
with a restatement of the facts, hoping perhaps that Jeff had been misquoted
or that there was some other simple misunderstanding. He has no luck with this
strategy, as Jeff goes well beyond his mere praise for the book in question
to state his own strong support for the idea of reparations, even citing one
prominent economist who has put a dollar amount on reparations, $1.7 trillion.
Now, Josh tries harder than ever to steer the conversation elsewhere. Here's
their brief exchange, which illustrates Josh's utter lack of success:
Josh: "OK, listen, this is probably a better discussion to have in the
abstract. Don't you think?"
Josh: "What do you mean?"
Jeff: "I mean someone owes me and my friends $1.7 trillion."
From this point on their dialogue, like Sam and Mallory's, becomes more fiery,
impassioned, and at times less amicable. Josh gives up on finding an easy resolution
to the problem of political appearances, and he engages more directly with the
substance of Jeff's claims and the complicated, trenchant problems of race relations
and their history in America. Josh and Jeff quarrel over the meaning and ramifications
of the civil war, they dispute the implications of reparations paid to Japanese
who were placed in internment camps during World War II, and they debate the
relationship between the holocaust and slavery. One might pithily say that in
the end they agree to disagree, but this cliché would miss the point
of the very discourse that they enter into and produce. In the end what they
agree on is the importance of disagreement to politics and to democracy, they
agree to continue discussing their disagreements, to continue disagreeing.
One could even press their dialogue to a certain theoretical limit and say
that their dispute converges on a rejection of the idea of democracy as oriented
toward political action based upon agreement and consensus. Josh had initially
hoped that he and Jeff could find some common ground, a space of agreement,
from which to move forward in their common cause of action. But no matter how
much he backpedals, he only finds discord between them. And when Josh tries
to move on to deal solely with the politics of the matter, saying "but
let's talk about your confirmation," he simply cannot bring himself to
do so; in his next breath he turns again to the substantive issues, "and
while we're on the topic of the civil war...." In short, this dialogue
has no telos; the discussion reaches no consensus whatsoever.
Indeed, the dialogue has no real endpoint at all, for the episode closes with
Josh and Jeff failing to agree on who should buy lunch. As his final move in
this last dispute, Josh reminds Jeff: "there's going to be a lot of these
meetings before your confirmation. Why don't you let me get lunch this time-you
get it next time."
The episode itself closes on this exchange, but it leaves the viewer with the
distinct impression that the dialogue has not ended at all, that the political
discussion and dispute will go on between these two even if we, the viewers,
never see the character of Jeff Breckinridge again. Therefore, we cannot locate
the purpose of the dialogue in an instrumental conception of political consensus.
Instead, the meaning of the dialogue seems to lie in the process of discussion
and dispute itself. Indeed, what appears to emerge from this process is the
very idea of democracy as incomplete, provisional, and always agonistic. The
very disputes that comprise this episode would seem to be constitutive of democracy.
Jeff suggests as much in his final speech, part of which I have quoted as the
epigraph to this paper. Jeff asks Josh if he has a dollar; the viewer wonders
if Jeff plans to ask for the first down payment on reparations, but he has something
else entirely in mind. He explains:
Take it out. Look at the back. The seal, the pyramid is unfinished with the
eye of God looking over it and the words "annuit coeptis," "He
(God) favors our undertaking." The seal is meant to be unfinished because
this country is meant to be unfinished. We're meant to keep doing better, we're
meant to keep discussing and debating, and we're meant to read books by great
historical scholars and then talk about them-which is why I lent my name to
a dust cover.
So the purpose of the dialogues is never agreement as such; in fact, it makes
no sense to say the dialogues even have a purpose in this limited, instrumental
sense. The process proves dramatically more significant than the endpoints,
which in hindsight seem, if anything, disappointing.
The importance of the process can be illustrated just as clearly by the case
of the discussion/debate between Sam and Mallory. At first glance it might appear
that their debate fits the deliberative democrats' model of democracy quite
well, since Sam and Mallory's spirited dialogue seems to result in a happy state
of consensus. And it is true that, in the end, they do agree. But I would argue
that it makes no sense to say-as the deliberative democrats would wish to do-that
their political discourse allows them to reach agreement. The argument
that they have reached agreement through political dialogue simply will not
hold in light of the basic fact that they agreed in the first place.
The dialogue could not serve to help them reach consensus, since their starting
point was consensus. With the model of political speech defended by deliberative
democrats, the purpose of political speech is exhausted in the creation of consensus,
so on the view proffered by that model, the entire series of exchanges between
Sam and Mallory turns out to be superfluous.
But I refuse to rest with this interpretation, precisely because the dialogue
did do something-something significant, I want to suggest. First, the conversation
transforms the relationship between Sam and Mallory-both personally, but also,
I want to argue, in important political ways. In turn, the process of the dialogue
changes each of them significantly. One example of this transformation
appears in the third episode of the second season in which the viewer again
finds Sam debating education with an intelligent, attractive woman-this time
a Republican. This episode opens with Sam "getting his ass kicked by a
girl," as Josh puts it, on a political debate television show. The "girl"
turns out to be Ainsley Hayes, an up-and-coming attorney and Republican pundit.
She does such an excellent job in the debate with Sam that the President insists
(over Leo's protestations) on hiring her to work in the White House. By bringing
in a Republican (and not even a left-leaning one, at that) because, as Leo explains,
"the president likes smart people who disagree with him," we see again
the vision of political dialogue as centered on dispute and agonism (not consensus)
that the show tends to foster.
To return to the dialogue between Sam and Mallory, it seems clear that their
discussion does not guide or ground political action. That is, it doesn't tell
either of them exactly how to act or what to do next. Lisa Disch has championed
a vision of political speech in the work of twentieth century political theorist
Hannah Arendt that challenges the model of deliberative democracy, one which
I think can throw light on the significance of this dialogue.
As in the discussion between Mallory and Sam, Disch argues with respect to Arendt's
conception of political speech, that "the peculiarity of [it] is that it
produces no results." Somewhat
surprisingly, while Arendt rejects an instrumental conception of language as
serving to achieve political consensus and orient political action, she still
insists that speech lies at the heart of politics-paraphrasing Aristotle in
saying that "speech is what makes man a political being."
The significance of political speech, therefore, lies not in any capacity to
provide a grounding for political action, but instead in its ability to offer
a space for political dispute and contestation.
As a name for this idea of political speech, I would offer "agonistic
discourse"-a phrase that highlights the importance of disagreement, conflict,
and struggle to politics and to discourse. An agonistic politics, as political
theorists such as William Connolly and Bonnie Honig have tried to delineate
it, emphasizes the importance of contestation and conflict to politics, and
it resists the attempt to displace politics, to substitute administration and
judgement for political battles. An agonistic theory insists upon preserving
the democratic struggle: "to affirm the perpetuity of the contest is not
to celebrate a world without points of stabilization; it is to affirm the reality
of perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting, and to identify the affirmative
dimension of contestation."
Discourse is agonistic to just the extent that it perpetuates the contest. Further,
this agonistic element of discourse must be rigorously distinguished from
antagonism. Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed,
the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented not
merely toward victory or defeat, but emphasizing the importance of the struggle
itself-a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. Victory through forfeit
or default, or over an unworthy opponent, comes up short compared to a defeat
at the hands of a worthy opponent-a defeat that still brings honor. An agonistic
discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly,
by mutual admiration-something we see clearly in both dialogues from the show.
Agonistic discourse offers neither the validity of an epistemological or moral
grounding to politics, nor the standard of communicative consensus to guide
politics as proffered by the deliberative democrats. Instead, the idea of agonism
in discourse emphasizes the role of persuasion and argumentation within a context
of dispute, disagreement, and conflict. Indeed, the notion of agonistic discourse
remains bound up with a similar conception of democracy as that articulated
by Jeff Breckinridge, above. Disch interprets Arendt as follows: "in politics...when
I say 'this is right...' I neither expect that my assessment will be universally
binding, as I might when I say 'this is obligatory,' nor that it will be [utterly
or definitively] convincing, as I might when I say 'this is true,' but I do
regard that assessment to be [political]" in a crucial way.
To speak politically, to speak from within an agonistic discourse, is neither
to preach from a position of authoritative power, nor is it simply to tell the
truth. It is, rather, to make a move that one hopes will be persuasive within
the terms of a conflict or struggle of power-that is, not a struggle
for power, as if power could be possessed in some simple way, but a power-struggle,
a power-play, in which power relations within the discourse shift. The contest
of power cannot reach a telos since neither participant can every definitively
have the power that is at stake within the discourse, and therefore,
a politics of agonistic discourse must remain centrally concerned with that
unfinished project of democracy, with the on-going discussions and disputes
that make American democracy what Jeff says it is meant to be. The idea of agonistic
discourse illustrates how a non-teleological conception of political speech-that
is, one that does not seek consensus-can still produce significant political
effects. The emphasis, then, shifts from the endpoint of the dialogue to the
process itself, a process that serves as an exemplar. Political speech
"...works to sound out a conflict, not to consolidate a standpoint."
Sam and Mallory's dialogue operates within the realm of agonistic discourse
precisely by "sounding out a conflict," even though-or better, perhaps
because-the conflict in their particular case turns out to be merely apparent.
The dialogues in this episode exemplify agonistic discourse even more strikingly
in the case of Josh and Jeff, because with their dispute we encounter not a
mainstream issue of American politics (as education surely is), but a sensitive,
complicated, and explosive topic. Any discussion of race relations in contemporary
American politics reveals a trenchant, difficult to grapple with, and politically
dangerous issue. But the very idea of monetary racial reparations to the descendents
of former slaves is absolutely incendiary-and falls nowhere near the current
political agenda of American politics. So the radical nature of a conception
of political dialogue not oriented toward consensus comes to the foreground
within this dispute, since the very content of the dialogue between Josh and
Jeff remains utterly marginalized in contemporary American politics.
To put this point more succinctly, I am only trying to argue the following:
it proves extremely significant that they are even talking about reparations.
But even this way of phrasing it misses part of the point, since it rests upon
the distinction between the form of the dialogue and its content-the very distinction
that I wish to call into question. Form and content cannot be separately so
neatly, since one partially determines the other. On the Habermasian model of
communicative action oriented to consensus, the question of reparations could
never even arise or be allowed onto the agenda, since complete agreement on
this issue simply proves impossible at the present point in the continuing history
of American race relations. Within the terms of agonistic discourse, however,
a topic destined to elicit dispute seems right at home. So once again, we see
that the discourse between Josh and Jeff-and it certainly seems safe to call
it an agonistic discourse-cannot aim at agreement, particularly with such self-confident
and entirely stubborn men as these two. Josh wants to think that the idea is
simply preposterous, even trying to get Jeff to laugh at the notion of putting
a real number on monetary reparations early on. But he quickly discovers Jeff's
icy realism here. Jeff believes not
merely that the issue is not a laughing matter, but that it has historically,
and can today, be talked about in practical terms. Agreement between the two
of them on this issue seems distant indeed.
Moreover, once this lack of possible consensus is established in the dialogue,
it does not bring the dialogue to an end. Quite the opposite, in fact, the conversation
really only gets underway at that point as each participant grows more committed
to the discussion and more heated in their responses. So once again we see dispute
as essential to discourse and democracy-as, in fact, the starting point for
democracy. Once again, we glimpse a vision of American democracy with agonistic
discourse at its core, but one in which political speech cannot be submerged
within a model of consensus.
Lunch Time: the Politics of The West Wing
In proffering this specific interpretation of "Six Meetings Before Lunch,"
and in turn a general reading of The West Wing, I do not wish to relegate
the show to the somewhat narrow confines of academic political theory. To the
contrary, in elaborating on the meaning of the show within the terms of contemporary
political thought I seek to broaden, not narrow, the significance and relevance
of The West Wing. Indeed, the social, cultural, and political significance
of the show cannot and should not be exhausted by the show's contribution to
a series of academic debates, but this should almost go without saying since
The West Wing (as everyone knows) is a major network, Emmy award-winning,
prime time television program. Almost by definition, it speaks to a far larger
audience than that which comprises the discourse of contemporary political theory.
These points produce a rather direct reply to the question of why my analysis
does not lock the show up in the ivory tower: such a move would be impossible.
But I have yet to articulate (though I think my analysis already suggests) why
a discussion of The West Wing in relation to democratic theory actually
broadens the significance and multiplies the implications of an already wildly-popular
The answer to that more trenchant question, requires returning to my point
of departure in the mainstream approaches to the politics of The West Wing.
I suggested at the start, and I now believe my analysis of "Six Meetings
Before Lunch" has shown, that the politics of the show greatly exceed the
current, exceedingly narrow terms of American Politics. The lens of contemporary
political theory offers a view of The West Wing outside or perhaps beyond the
scope of American Politics, so through this lens we get to see a much richer,
more provocative, and perhaps even radical vision of politics.
Descriptions of the importance of that vision could take a number of different
tacks, full elaboration of which must be subjects for further writing and research.
But a few possibilities immediately suggest themselves. Certainly political
theorists might be interested to explore and continue to reconstruct a dialogue
between the articulation of democratic politics within The West Wing
and the writings and arguments of democratic theorists. Sorkin's text, especially,
speaks to those debates in important ways, some of which I have suggested here.
More boldly, one might wish to explore the challenges that these political possibilities
within The West Wing offer to both the American viewing audience and
the American electorate (especially to the great extent that they intersect).
One can safely characterize the United States today as country in which, at
least until September 11th, citizens (especially compared to their European
counterparts) seemingly never wish to discuss politics, as a country in which
the word "political" has become a term of great disparagement, and
a country in which the space of the political sphere grows more constricted
by the day.
But what does it mean that such a country has made a show about politics one
of its very most popular programs? What is the relationship of that possibly
radical vision of politics to the obvious attractiveness of the show? Does The
West Wing serve to open up those spaces of the political, to make the word
politics itself less a term of derision and contempt and instead one of hope,
of possibility? Whatever the answers to these questions, and others like them,
may be, they will all depend on attending to the alternative political possibilities-some
of which I have outlined here-contained within The West Wing. That is,
they will depend upon going beyond an analysis that reconciles the correspondence
between the show's vision of American politics and the current practice of American
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition,
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 3; Bonnie Honig, Political
Theory and the Displacement of Politics, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University
Press, 1993), p. 210; "Six Meetings Before Lunch," written by Aaron
Sorkin, directed by Clark Johnson, 2000.
Although the show borrows a great
deal from the rhetoric of the American right, one would be hard-pressed in the
final analysis to demonstrate that the show is right wing. Nevertheless, there
have been concerted efforts to interpret each particular episode as conservative.
See, for example, "The Left ...er...
The West Wing," at http://www.geocities.com/the_left_wing.
I have never taught high school debate,
but I do teach American Politics to college students, and I do have them stage
debates over currently significant topics within American politics. Never in
my experience has their sometimes significant discourse reached the level of
substance and sophistication as that articulated in Sorkin's text. Clearly Riley's
high school had quite a debate team.
Jeff Riley, "Review of 'Six Meetings
Jürgen Habermas, Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action, translated by Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber
Nicholson, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), p. 67, 168. Lisa Disch, "'Please
Sit Down, but Don't Make Yourself at Home': Arendtian 'Visiting' and the Prefigurative
Politics of Consciousness-Raising,'" in Hannah Arendt and the Meaning
of Politics, edited by Craig Calhoun and John McGowan, (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 148.
For a more thorough elaboration on
the relationship between Habermas and Kant, see Dana Villa, Arendt and Heidegger:
The Fate of the Political, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the
Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton, (New York: Harper and
Jürgen Habermas, The Theory
of Communicative Action, volume two, translated by Thomas McCarthy, (Beacon
Press: Boston, 1984), p. 96.
Habermas, The Theory of Communicative
Action, volume one, p. 94, emphasis added. Habermas makes his assumption
crystal clear: "the concept of communicative action presupposes
language as the medium for a kind of reaching understanding...language is relevant
only from the pragmatic viewpoint" (pp. 98-99, emphasis added).
Habermas, Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action, p. 66, emphasis in original.
Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests,
translated by Jeremy Shapiro, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 314.
Seyla Benhabib, Situating the
Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, (New
York: Routledge, 1992), p. 132.
Habermas, Moral Consciousness...,
Habermas, "Hannah Arendt's
Communications Concept of Power," in Power, edited by Steven Lukes,
(New York: New York University Press, 1986) p. 76, first emphasis in original,
second emphasis added.
Ibid, p. 77.
My summary here merely repeats
a potentially problematic aspect of the dialogue; while both Mallory and Sam
make important conflicting, principled contributions to the dialogue, only Sam
gets to make genuine speeches. I leave an analysis of this problematic, and
the broader questions of the structure and relations of gender both within the
show and within Washington politics, for another day or another commentator.
In trying to locate a point of
agreement in this discussion, one could argue that Josh and Jeff do agree on
what Jeff will say to the Judiciary Committee and that this point of consensus
even closes the episode. I would emphasize two important aspects of Josh and
Jeff's discourse in response to such an argument: 1) their agreement on political
strategy still remains far removed from a Habermasian version of rational consensus
that motivates and guides political action, and 2) the termination of this particular
discussion cannot metonymically take the place of a conclusion to the discourse.
As even the characters themselves suggest the larger discourse must and will
go on, and it will continue to be marked by conflict and dispute.
I turn to Arendt, and Disch's particular
reading of Arendt not in an effort to appropriate the political implications
of this episode (or the show in general) to a specific model within political
theory, but rather to use concepts in contemporary political thought to shed
more light on the radical political possibilities within the show itself.
Disch, p. 156.
Arendt, Human Condition,
Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and
the Displacement of Politics, p. 15. See also, William Connolly, Identity/Difference:
Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, (Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press, 1991).
Ibid., p. 156.
Ibid., p. 158.
The approach taken to issues of
race by the character of Jeff Breckinridge seems to intersect at key moments
with the important work of Derrick Bell. Bell argues for a theory of "racial
realism" which places questions of economics at the core of the problem
of race in America, downplays some of the merely symbolic victories for African
American rights, and rejects the blind pursuit of integrationist goals as outdated
legacies of a different political era. See Derrick Bell, And We Are Not Saved:
The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, (New York: Basic Books, 1987), and
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, (New York:
Basic Books, 1992).
Samuel A. Chambers is Assistant Professor of Political Science
at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he teaches political theory. He has recently
completed a book manuscript which calls for a politics of untimeliness based upon
a non-instrumental theory of language.
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