In the newly released season of Netflix’s hit show House of Cards, the character of Tom Hammerschmidt, a hard-nosed reporter working at the in-universe stand-in of the Washington Post, says of President Frank Underwood “He has no ideology, no North Star”. This is in the middle of his massive investigation into the backhanded dealings and possible murders committed by the President or his staffers. Of course, said dealings and murders have been the main narrative thrust and draw of House of Cards ever since it began its run back in 2013. However, ask someone who considers themselves “into politics” in some sort of measure, and they’ll tell you that they like the show because of the supposed “truth” it provides in it’s cynical portrayal of American politics as a shark tank of backbiting politicians and thieves.
However, this is only the image that the show wants you to see. Below the slimy and pessimistic exterior, House of Cards is almost like a mirror-mirror version of another of modern day liberalism’s most beloved cultural touchstones: The West Wing. Both shows possess basically the same ideology in regards to how they view power and government. The only real difference between the two is that, while The West Wing proudly wears it’s ideology on it’s chest like a Presidential Medal of Freedom, House of Cards attempts to bury it beneath the exterior under multitudes of slime, but no matter how hard it tries, that ideology is still there. It’s the natural result of the desire to have a West Wing-style liberal fantasy while being unable to ignore the disappointment and cynicism of Obama’s first term in office and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. Both are cartoonish fantasies that far too many liberals allow to influence their real life politics in dangerous and harmful ways.
House of Cards, in certain aspects, is correct in it’s depiction; most politicians are either power-hungry hacks, or slimy weasels that obey their corporate backers at the expense of the American people. One would have to be incredibly naive not to recognize this though, so no points for pointing out the obvious. It is also correct when it depicts politics as a struggle for the ability to force your agenda down the throats of the other side. However, the point in which their portrayal starts to tear at the seams is just how competent these same politicians are. The Underwoods are so absolutely ingenious that they’re able to escape every pitfall that opens up in front of them, whether this is bringing down an entire Presidential administration from the inside, or murdering journalists and opponents that just might know too much. Even the enemies of the Underwoods who come up short in their efforts to bring down their empire are razor-sharp, quick witted, and skilled beyond belief.
Yet, however evil Frank Underwood may be, the show never repudiates Frank or anyone else for their misdeeds. Instead, it upholds the idea that only a skilled tactician can wield the office of President of the United States. Only an iron-willed master can be able to bring together all the conflicting forces within the vast monolith of American government. For all the cynicism and pessimism towards the system of government we find ourselves in, the show still has a reverent worship of power.
The same can be said of The West Wing, but to a cartoonish extent. Power, in this universe, is demonstrated by how many degrees and certifications you have from powerful institutions, and how well you can dupe your opponent with high school debate tactics. The West Wing also created hyper-competent characters that were able to pull off superhuman feats of political prowess. Not only does President Bartlet have an unprecedented 1590 score on the SAT, he was summa cum laude at Notre Dame and received both a Masters and a PhD in economics along with a Nobel prize in the same field. Sorkin, in his attempt to create his ideal President, basically created Liberal Superman. The main differences with regards to House of Cards is that the people with those amazing skills are on “the right side”, always rewarded for their glib intelligence. Politics in The West Wing is reduced to debate club inanity, and that the entire show depicts every bit of politics as a game of compromise. Bartlet brings in Republican operatives to help run his cabinet, Republicans that stand completely against everything he stands for, because they’re really smart and write really good things sometimes. Basically, it doesn’t matter what actual opinions you hold on policy; as long as you’re a big enough nerd from the right gilded institutions, you deserve a spot at the table, even if it completely disadvantages the person sitting at the head of it.
All of these depictions decay and wilt in the sickening glow of a Trump presidency and the sad legacy of the Obama administration. The performative seriousness and cultish worship of power and institutions comes off as ridiculous when the person in the White House seems to barely have object permanence. Congress is held firmly by the Republicans, and the only roadblocks they’ve had to fully implementing their agenda is when the moderates within their own party, a species so rare that the International Union for Conservation of Nature honestly should classify them as endangered, raise concerns about the monstrous content of the bills presented. They’ve achieved the kind of domination that Underwood would (literally) kill for, yet they still find ways to trip over their own dicks. When the country can still, more or less, run the same as it always has when ostensibly the most powerful office in the land can be piloted by (allegedly) a senile old man who takes the opinion of the last person that talked to them as gospel, why should we have respect for these institutions? Why are they so important to begin with? Why should this office be endowed with so much power over the lives of millions of people when even a complete buffoon can hold it?
Obama once held the entirety of government within the palm of his hand; the White House and both Houses of Congress were held by the Democratic party. Even then, it was still their prerogative to compromise on every single promise they made coming into power. They easily could have passed their full agenda without worrying about public opinion; they were coming off the heels of an immensely unpopular Bush presidency, and were handed a mandate by the voters. Yet, they couldn’t even pass card check. They immediately folded on a public option for Obamacare, turning the bill into a Frankenstein’s monster of legislation destined to fail. They followed the West Wing interpretation of politics right over the cliff. Now they have nothing to show for it while the Republican party is one state legislature away from passing any Constitutional amendment they please.
Towards the end of House of Cards new season, Frank Underwood gives the audience one of his standard Richard the 3rd style monologues. He states “Welcome to the death of the Age of Reason. There is no right or wrong, not anymore. There is only being in and being out”. Well he’s right, just not in the way he thinks. Now the landscape of American politics is thus; you’re either in the spineless party of compromisers that would rather kick and scream about Russia than examine why they’re loathed, or a party run by a game show host that’s barely able to get their policies passed in spite of their total control.