Language and Politics

Agonistic Discourse in The West Wing

"Speech is what makes man a political being."
Hannah Arendt

"...politics never gets things right, over, and done with. Th[is] conclusion is not nihilistic but radically democratic."
Bonnie Honig

"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)[1]

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.[2] 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,[3] 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." [4]

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."[5] 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 American politics?

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.[6] 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"[7] -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.[8] 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."[9] 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."[10] 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."[11] 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."[12] 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."[13] 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."[14]

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." [15] 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 an end in itself."[16] Consensus serves not just as the telos of political speech but of politics writ large.

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.[17]

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?"
Jeff: "No"
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.[18] 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.[19] 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."[20] 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."[21] 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."[22] 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.[23] 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 " to sound out a conflict, not to consolidate a standpoint."[24] 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.[25] 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 program.

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 politics.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] See, for example, "The Left The West Wing," at

[4] 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.

[5] Jeff Riley, "Review of 'Six Meetings Before Lunch,'"

[6] 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.

[7] 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).

[8] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H. J. Paton, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965).

[9] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, volume two, translated by Thomas McCarthy, (Beacon Press: Boston, 1984), p. 96.

[10] 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).

[11] Habermas, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, p. 66, emphasis in original.

[12] Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by Jeremy Shapiro, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 314.

[13] Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 132.

[14] Habermas, Moral Consciousness..., p. 162.

[15] 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.

[16] Ibid, p. 77.

[17] 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.

[18] 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.

[19] 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.

[20] Disch, p. 156.

[21] Arendt, Human Condition, p. 3.

[22] 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).

[23] Ibid., p. 156.

[24] Ibid., p. 158.

[25] 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.