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Paxton on the Politics of The West Wing

How does The West Wing explain the motivations and rewards of its characters? What motivation animates and drives them to spend years of their lives in pursuit of so much uncertainty – policy battles they may or may not win; daily distractions from the core of their agenda; unexpected threats to the health, safety, and well-being of the nation and it citizens; or even the unrelenting boredom and slowness of creating public policy and pursuing politics in the American governmental system? Against our most base expectation for the conduct of politics, “pursuit of power” does not provide The West Wing’s answer to the above questions. For the characters on The West Wing, power’s rewards rarely enter into the calculus of their service, and the pursuit of such for its own sake brings about discouragement or rebuke. Instead, The West Wing answers that duty motivates and rewards the people in the universe of The West Wing. The program proffers a running discussion of the concept of duty as played out in the American political ideology and the contemporary political arena. Indeed, duty’s obligations and objects provide the leitmotif of the series, binding its episodes together into a more coherent whole.

Nathan Paxton (2005), “Virtue From Vice: Duty, Power, and The West Wing,” in Deceptive Words: The Poetics and Politics of Aaron Sorkin (ed. Thomas Fahey). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Press. Available here. Nate blogs at Nate Knows Nada.

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