What I learned is what many people in its fan base probably knew: Aaron Sorkin, when properly contained, can really write. I had seen "Sports Night", which was a bit too clever by half, and I didn't bother watching "The West Wing" at the time because it seemed to be fetishizing the Clinton presidency - and right after the rape allegations, the impeachment and the Lewinsky scandal it seemed strange to invent an alternate history. Many years later it is easy to put all of that aside and if you can also do so, the early West Wing was really good, almost even believable. Clearly Sorkin was still getting input from some former Republican staffers then, so it seemed more authentic, even if you knew the Republicans were always going to lose.
The West Wing cast. They are all thin and correct and way more idealistic than you.
Because I watched it so long after the fact, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center created no disconnect - in hindsight, people say that the show lost a lot of audience because the tiresome Republican bashing was out of fashion in the real world post-9/11 and Democrats had no way to win - either their fictional president would do just what Bush did or he would look weak, so it never happened in the show. After the fourth season, Sorkin had had enough and then in 2004, President Bush stomped Senator John Kerry in the election, no matter what loyal West Wing viewers had convinced themselves was going to happen.
Since I watched them all in bulk, I noticed some themes and because it is the end of the year, I am going to share them at a time when no one really cares - the dead zone between Christmas and January 2nd. Then I will include the real world situation.
1. Nuclear Power is morally and scientifically wrong.
In the show, California has a Republican Senator who is pro-abortion, pro-environment, pro-gun control and doesn't go to church. He gushes over the sitting Democratic president who lied to the public about his health and assassinated a foreign dignitary.
Basically he is a Democrat that gets called a Republican.
Somehow that Republican from California still loses the election - sure, it is a Democratic fantasy camp so only Democrats should win any election but the the non-overt reason is because decades earlier the Republican candidate had pushed to approve a nuclear power plant that had a meltdown crisis.
In the real world, Senator John Kerry and President Bill Clinton had gotten nuclear energy killed in the US in 1994, so Democrats were still convinced meltdowns were happening every day - while the show was still on, because of that anti-science agenda, instead of more emissions-free energy we got more coal. We can thank environmentalists and the Democrats they vote for that we had a runaway CO2 problem. That has been partially fixed now, thanks to natural gas, which Democrats also hate. If "The West Wing" were made today, fracking would be causing cancer and earthquakes and flaming tap water but nuclear power would still be bad.
However, that Republican Senator from California stuff is still too ridiculous to be believed in 2014.
2. Intelligent Design is promoted by the Republican party. It's easy to know where Sorkin got this bit of spin, it was commonly promoted by people in science media. And it is not without at least some basis, the conservative magazine "National Review" pays not one but two members of the Discovery Institute, which promotes this warmed-over replacement for religion and science being non-overlapping magistera, but saying that makes it a mainstream RNC position is like saying that because more Democrats believe in ghosts, psychics and ESP that those are in the Democratic party platform.
In the real world, 15% of Americans are 'creationists' and among those, 49% are Republicans and 40% are Democrats. That is hardly a giant monopoly by the right.
A year before the show was canceled, Intelligent Design advocates did get their day in court - and they were shut down. By a Republican judge.
3. America is one of only two civilized countries that allows late-term abortion on demand for any reason. Oh wait, that is still real. Even the kookiest abortion proponents in Europe think we are a little barbaric for this one.
4. GMOs cause debt, suicide and lousy naan in India. Debt and suicide in India are not really going to resonate with educated elites in the Democratic party now any more than they did then, but what does resonate - and was in the show - is having a minimum-wage in-home care worker from Punjab lament that the naan (bread) the elites have learned to love so much (because her family begins making it for them) will no longer be any good because farmers had switched to GMO corn.
In "The West Wing", a combination of flour, yeast, yogurt, salt and sugar will all be ruined if the northern Indian maize kernel expresses a natural Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin to ward off pests rather than having Bt sprayed on it by organic farmers. All of the other pesticides and synthetic fertilizers Indian farmers have used for decades were apparently not a factor.
In the real world, science has repeatedly shown there is no taste or nutritional or structural difference in GMO and organic food. And farmers unions wound up by Greenpeace were still protesting even having trials of genetically modified maize in 2012, so how GMOs had already ruined naan for Democrats and the domestics who made it for them in "The West Wing" in the previous decade remains a mystery.
In 2014, if The West Wing were real, global warming science would be settled but vaccines would be objected to under the pretense of 'testing the conclusions of science in a reasonable way' and organic food would be feeding the world.
5. Solar power would be viable if we just put a $3 a gallon tax on gasoline. More taxes on gasoline were once all the rage for people who like taxes - it seems very European to only have cars for rich people and "The West Wing" desperately wanted America to be more like Europe. In the actual 2004 election, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential contender, was trounced, and part of the reason was his desire for $4 a gallon gasoline. By 2008, Nobel laureate Dr. Stephen Chu even lobbied for $9 a gallon gasoline, which promptly got him named to run President Obama's Department of Energy. We then spent $72 billion on alternative energy subsidies and got...nothing, even though gas was $4 a gallon, just like Senator Kerry said it should be.
In the real world, subsidizing technology that is not ready doesn't help, nor has it ever. In 2014, solar is not more viable than in 1984 and wind is a gimmick. Now, gasoline prices have dropped again, they are only 30 percent higher than in 2004, when West Wing watchers believed that America was invading the mid-East to make oil cheaper - and Democrats are giving all of the credit for cheaper gas to President Obama.
Republicans had supported stem cell research for 40 years prior to that, they doubled the budget for the National Institutes of Health and and President Bush became the first President to fund human embryonic stem cell research - but he compromised with factions inside Congress who were for this new technology and against it and limited federal funding to existing lines. States and private companies were free to do whatever they wanted, which had led to the hESC breakthrough in the first place.
In the alternate universe of the West Wing, researchers will have cured Parkinson's disease in 2014 because clever Democrats were able to end-run the "ban" that Republicans put on hESCs because of worries about cloning.
In the real world of 2009, President Obama made a show of 'lifting the ban' on hESC research by slightly modifying the law with an executive order. It was never banned and it is only slightly less banned now.
Yet since 2009 and still in 2014, the Obama administration refuses to fund Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) despite the pleas of scientists...because of concerns about cloning.
These are only 6 areas and I only mention the ones where I saw a real disconnect between science and the real world and they were important enough to note, some of the other science issues were handled innocuously or humorously and were clearly derived from real-world movements that were brought up in pitch meetings for the show. Any time Sorkin was funny on policy, it wasn't anything Democrats really cared about, like cartography and giving developing nations some respect:
"You're telling me Germany isn't where we think it is?"
"Nothing is where you think it is."