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Reflections on "House of Cards" (so far)

Updated on September 10, 2015

Can Honest Politicians Succeed?

I recently finished watching the last episode (so far) of the Netflix series “House of Cards.” (And there better be another season.) The character Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, seems to be the epitome of the “man you love to hate.” He manipulates, threatens, uses, and even kills people to claw his way to the top of the political world. What makes the show so good, however, is that I do not completely hate him. At times, I even find myself rooting for him.

Too often, bad guys in television shows and movies lack any nuance. They seem to take pleasure in doing evil just for the sake of doing evil. Frank Underwood does not fit that description. Instead of being a pure sociopath, he consistently shows his human side. He has the capacity to care about people who are close to him. He occasionally opens up to people outside of his inner circle and makes real emotional connections. He wrestles at times with difficult political and ethical decisions. And when possible, he is perfectly willing to play nice in the course of getting what he wants. But when he thinks it is necessary, he is willing to brush aside any feelings of empathy or compassion in order to do and/or say whatever it takes to get and to keep the power that he craves. And after those rare occasions in which he lets his feelings get in the way of what needs to be done, he regrets these decisions as moments of weakness.

When we get to know a character as intimately as Frank Underwood, we inevitably feel a certain amount of sympathy for him. But this is not the only reason why I sometimes find myself rooting for him. In the third season, the now President Underwood proposes a program called “America Works.” On the surface, it seems like a typical liberal job creation program designed largely to win a lot of votes. To a certain degree, that is exactly what it is. But in the fictional President’s plan, the creation of these jobs is funded largely through spending cuts to entitlement programs. He makes a convincing case in one episode, in fact, that Social Security and Medicare in their current forms are unsustainable, and that too much of federal spending is going to handouts as opposed to job creation. The basic argument is that government is not obligated to meet everyone’s needs. Instead, its role is to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity.

So President Underwood, a Democrat, is talking about cuts to entitlement programs. (This show is fiction, after all.) And he then wants to take the money that is saved and spend it on a combination of military and infrastructure projects. Any political pundit would argue that a program such as this would be dead on arrival. There are things in the plan for both sides to hate. But on the other hand, there are also things that both sides could support. Imagine that. A compromise measure that cuts welfare programs, builds infrastructure, creates jobs, and increases military spending. President Underwood makes a pretty convincing case, but just as in the real Washington, his attempt at real reform faces an uphill struggle, a struggle that I want him to win.

What is it that we want out of our political leaders? Do we want them to be terrific human beings, or do we primarily want them to implement effective policies? And if a person is always an ethical and compassionate human being, can he or she be effective in the world of politics? On some level, we know that the President Underwoods of the world are the ones who are able to achieve power and to do something with that power once they have it. Lyndon Johnson, a President on whom Frank Underwood seems to be somewhat based, could be as manipulative and conniving as any politician in American history. But he was also able to pass a wide range of legislation that any “bleeding-heart” liberal could love. Ultimately, it is not just ambition that has separated the leaders of world history from the followers. It is also the willingness to brush emotion (and sometimes ethics) aside and do the things that most people are unwilling to do. And when these leaders were not one of the many sociopathic dictators of history (and the present), they likely brushed aside their guilt by convincing themselves that the ends justified the means.

Hopefully, Frank Underwood is an exaggeration. I hope that we have not had American presidents who have gone as far as him in their quest for power and greatness. I hope that at least some of them have been as ethical as the image that they attempt to portray. I suspect, however, that the term “honest politician” is, to a certain degree, a contradiction in terms. The tendency, therefore, is to either justify the behavior of politicians or to demonize them. With Frank Underwood, I find myself doing both. He’s just so damn human, and the world that he lives in is so disturbingly familiar.


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