This article is written from a Democratic point of view.
American popular culture is a Moebius loop of art imitating life and life imitating art, a two-headed snake — one made from entertainment and the other from the never-ending news cycle — gnawing on its own tail.
Is it truly coincidence that state after state recognized same-sex marriage, leading to a Supreme Court decision making it the law of the land, during the same period where shows like Will & Grace topped the ratings? Conversely, there is a sociological throughpoint that was launched with the entertainment industry’s fascination with the zombie apocalypse and it’s ends-justifies-the-means survival theme and the rise of “America First” Trumpism.
And, seriously, if you’ve never been cornered by a hardcore West Wing nerd and schooled on the connection between the fictional campaign of Latino candidate Matt Santos (played with gusto by Jimmy Smits) and the ascendancy just a year and a half later by a senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, well then, you’ve never truly known fear.
If we want to get a handle on what the next social and political trends will be, we need look no further than the Nielsen ratings and box office returns. Those numbers are far more predictive than Nate Silver wearing Professor X’s Cerebro helmet. What the industry calls viewers in those reports are called voters by every political strategist in the business.
And that brings us to something sneaky that carries us from the series that ended in 2007 to the amazing candidacy of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter Buttigieg which is happening in real time — it was actually heralded by a massive resurgence in the popularity of the show, which is now enjoying a consistent viewership on Netflix. According to Google Trends, the show is being viewed (and viewed again) on the streaming service more than ever. Former co-star Josh Malina (Deputy Communications Director Will Baily) hosts a West Wing fan podcast with more than 1.2 million listeners. There are network TV shows that don’t have that large an audience.
And so the comparisons have already begun all across social media. Buttigieg’s authenticity, matched only by his sense of nuance and casual, but palpable, command of the issues has people clamoring that he is quickly becoming our real-life Jed Bartlet, the president with a once-in-a-generation mind played to Emmy-nominated perfection by Martin Sheen. But they’re wrong. Pete Buttigieg is no Jed Bartlet — he’s better.
Starting with the trivial side of the equation, Jed Bartlet spoke only four languages while Mayor Pete speaks eight, most notably having taught himself Norwegian so he could read a book written in the language. And even then, Buttigieg is realistic about those linguistic skills. In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, he pointed out that he would not be considered “fluent” in all of them because it’s not like he walks around the house practicing all the time. And there’s another difference — Pete’s mastery of humility and nuance when the camera is turned on. Bartlet’s character was known for his arrogance, using it to “knock some bodies down” in a season 4 debate with a fictional Republican presidential opponent. Mayor Pete doesn’t knock bodies down so much as he blows people away with how he can be so compelling without feeling the need to hip-check any conservative within skating distance.
But the key differences between the factual Pete and the fictional Jed reside in the places where they seem the most similar. Bartlet was an undeniable product of privilege. His great grandfather was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He went to a boarding school where his stepfather was the headmaster, and he never served in the military. Of course, Buttigieg also went to a religious prep school, South Bend’s renowned St. Joseph’s, where he was class president and valedictorian. But his father was an immigrant, and his mom a South Bender, both of whom taught at Notre Dame, coincidentally Bartlet’s alma mater. In real life, Buttigieg wound up at Harvard, graduating Magna Cum laude with a BA in history and literature, compared to Bartlet’s eventual Ph.D. in economics.
But where Bartlet’s initial fictional aim at Notre Dame was to become a priest, Mayor Pete always had governmental service in mind. He was the president of Harvard’s Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee and was accepted to Harvard in part for his winning the JFK Profiles in Courage Essay Contest while he was still in high school. Ironically, the essay was about a radical Vermont political figure, Bernie Sanders.
But the most telling difference between art and life in this comparison is their view of state and local politics. While Bartlet led his make-believe Democratic Party, multiple episodes saw him direct campaign financing away from local races, with his party’s core attention on the 535 elected offices in Washington. Mayor Pete believes that if there will be sweeping change in our political culture, it will come from the energizing local politics in order to bring the national water to a boil.
The Democratic National Committee is always vulnerable to this gravitational force that makes it treat the presidency like it’s the only office that matters,” Buttigieg told CNN two years ago. “My hope is that [DNC Chair Tom Perez] will direct the party toward working from the bottom up.”
So while Jed Bartlet was clearly the right man at the right time for NBC, it may well be that Mayor Pete Buttigieg may be the man the real America needs just in time. The ratings are already in, so we’ll just have to see how the vote turns out.
Tony Panaccio is the co-founder and Chief Media Strategist of Bold Blue Campaigns, the only national political consultancy that focuses primarily on state and local elections.