People usually describe The West Wing as idealistic. This is reflected in what is taken to be the show’s signature directorial move, the “walk and talk,” in which two characters walk briskly through the corridors of the West Wing engaged in some high-powered discussion of the story of the week; this is a visual representation of the show’s commitment to the idea of the good that can be accomplished by energetic, intelligent, good people. But I always thought the heart of the show was in a slighty different move, that usually appeared towards the end of the episode. Again two characters, but this time usually static, in the muted light of an office somewhere out of the way; one character gives an impassioned speech to persuade the other of the moral rightness of some course of action, and just as this speech reaches its argumentative climax, the character breaks off and says, “but of course, we’ll never be able to implement that policy.” This reveals the cynicism which Žižek identifies as central to idealism: the idea, not just that good people sometimes do bad things, but that the “goodness” of good people is an internal, essential, quality untouched by any bad things they may by chance happen to do; indeed, the very distance between the bad actions and the internal goodness, perversely, comes to be taken as evidence of this internal goodness.
While The West Wing exhibits the cynicism of idealism, there is also a naivete of cynicism. Cynicism operates by revealing that, behind people’s actions lie their true, hidden, motives; but this just reproduces naivete at one remove, with a simple faith in the reality of these underlying motives. What I like about Political Animals is that it challenges this naive cynicism. In Political Animals, cynicism is omnidirectional: people use politics in the service of their desire for sex, use sex in the service of their political ambitions, tell the truth to manipulate people and lie as a result of commitment to journalistic ethics, frequently all at the same time. In Political Animals, that is, there is no “real” motive hiding behind actions, just indefinite layers of deception. In other words, Political Animals is politics as drag performance, where “motivations” are adopted and shed like costumes.
Political Animals follows the career of a female politician, who was First Lady to a serially unfaithful president and is now Secretary of State in the administration of a president she lost a primary campaign to; that is, it is Hilary Clinton’s life thinly reimagined as soap opera. In this, it’s an interesting counterpart to The West Wing, which functioned largely as an imaginary compensation for the Clinton administration, a chance for liberals to rectify through fantasy the damage done by Clinton’s personal sleaziness and political compromise (that is to say, The West Wing was fundamentally silly in just the way The Newsroom was slated for being). Political Animals is just the opposite, glorying in the venality and triangulation of its ersatz Clinton family as the foundation for its distinctively soapy interpretation of politics.
A number of reviewers have criticized Political Animals for its melodramatic soap style, lamenting its distance from the quality drama of The West Wing (admittedly, this may be USA’s fault for the way they promoted the show, which I assume was chosen because of the emerging norm for basic cable profanity, that if you’re an AMC-style quality drama you get to say “shit”; the characters in Political Animals say “shit” an awful lot, presumably as its the only curse they are allowed to use). This criticism is quite wrong, however, because, in its exaggeratedly amoral performances, Political Animals has a much more sophisticated analysis of politics than the liberal proceduralism of The West Wing. In focussing on the superficiality of politics (its dependence on the manipulation of poses, costumes, appearances), Political Animals shares its analysis of politics with Marx’s discussion of the consumate politics of Louis Napoleon:
An old, crafty roué, [Bonaparte] conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win.
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is a useful corrective to readings of Marx which see him as proposing that politics is “superficial” in the sense of epiphenomenal or ineffective, because it shows just the opposite: the “superficiality” of the politics involved in Napoleon III’s rise to power, that is, the role played by appearance, costume, and performance, is what allowed him to take control of France with the most dramatic consequences, namely, the defeat of the revolution for twenty years. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped people attempting to read the Eighteenth Brumaire as a vulgar materialist work about objective class fractions or something (perhaps misled by Engels’ introduction). Andrew Parker takes the Eighteenth Brumaire as his text in a discussion of Marxism’s resistance to thinking about sexuality (in the Fear of a Queer Planet connection), arguing that Marx betrays a heteronormative preference for the productivity of material/economic relations over the apparently sterile performativity of theatrical models of politics. But the text doesn’t pit materiality against appearance, but rather is concerned with analyzing different manipulations of and interactions with appearance (from the bourgeois republicans who are under the spell of appearances, to Louis Napoleon who fakes his own spells in order to create new appearances).
In any case, the relationship between economics, appearance, gender, and sexuality is more complicated than Parker acknowledges, because some of the main advocates in the history of political theory of a performative politics have connected this with a distinctively masculinist heteronormativity (especially Machiavelli, but also Arendt); for these theorists, performativity is performance or effectivity, the succesful insertion of the agent’s will into the world through the manipulation of appearance. This is not, however, the kind of performativity we find in Political Animals, and the choice of the Clintons as models is rather perfect in showing why not: Bill’s priapism is not, as it would be in Machiavelli, a mark of his political potency, but a liability which has to be constantly managed and tended to, an object of parody and an occasion for burlesque.