The destructive force of cynicism
This Valentine’s Day, Netflix is giving singles across the country
the opportunity to binge-watch the second season of their very popular show, “House
of Cards,” instead of wallowing in sorrow as they would otherwise do.
As a perpetually single man myself, and a fan of the show, I am thankful to Netflix for this opportunity, and I will happily partake. But as an American with deep faith and trust in the structure and integrity of our government, I feel obligated to say that “House of Cards” is destroying America.
More accurately, “House of Cards,” with its conniving characters willing to go to lengths as extreme as murder in pursuit of additional political power, with no concern for the wellbeing of their constituents or for the country, is promoting a sense of cynicism among its loyal viewers toward the American political process.
And through the promotion of this cynicism, “House of Cards” is destroying our young republic.
This is not to say the show is bad, because it isn’t. It’s really quite fantastic, and one of the most entertaining dramas not on television today.
But that message it sends, that reinforces the worst people think about Washington and politics, is encouraging people to not get involved, to not vote, to write off the whole of American government as corrupt and only it in for themselves.
I’m not trying to paint a rosier picture of Washington D.C. than is accurate, but it surely isn’t as bad as “House of Cards” paints it. There are plenty of people who are in politics because they care about the state of the country. They aren’t looking to move up, the money isn’t a concern of theirs. Public servants do exist.
“House of Cards” presents itself as the most honest and realistic show about politics ever to air. But this simply isn’t the case. Frank Underwood’s behavior is not a typical example of how politicians act. They’d never get away with it. Politicians who cheat on their wives get caught and resign, they don’t get a high profile promotion.
Further, “House of Cards” likes to conflate political savvy with corruption. For House of Cards, corruption is necessary to be successful as a politician. Backroom deals and paying off or intimidating opponents is par for the course in the world of House of Cards. But political savvy is completely distinct from corruption. Backroom deals can be simple compromises between opposing parties, and interest groups more often sway with information about their cause that with sweetheart deals or threats.
When Anthony Weiner went through his innumerable troubles, he wasn’t last seen with Nancy Pelosi before turning up dead under suspicious circumstances. He resigned and later tried and failed to re-enter politics, despite his high-powered connections. Scandal in Washington isn’t nearly as sexy as House of Cards likes to think.
Even the real life politicians who Underwood may evoke, the corrupt good old boys like Presidents Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, aren’t all that similar to Underwood. Nixon may have broken the law to crush an opponent who he would have crushed anyway, but once he became President he wasn’t in it just for himself. He ended the Vietnam War. He gave us the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. He may have been impossibly corrupt in a similar way to Underwood, but even he used his power wisely and helped improve the nation he loved to serve.
Johnson was similar. His ambition was famous, and the lengths he went in pursuit of the presidency were astounding. It isn’t controversial to say that he stole his election to the Senate which got him on his path to power, and he was a panderer and influence peddler through and through. But once he finally got the prize he sought, he didn’t give up and cash in to live a life of corrupt luxury, he passed the Civil Rights Act, began a War on Poverty, and extended voting rights to all. None of these prototypical corrupt and ambitious climbers are as one-dimensional as Underwood is. Sure they sought power through less than moral means, but once they had it they did good with it. Does anyone seriously expect Underwood to do something on the scale of the Voting Rights Act once he attains his ultimate goal?
A show about politics doesn’t have to resort to shady back room deals to be successful. “The West Wing,” for all its late-season faults, was very idealistic and optimistic in its portrayal of American politics. All the politicians who were in it for themselves were ultimately unsuccessful in their ambitions. And the ones who were successful weren’t power hungry, they were trying to make America a better place.
This was an exaggeration of reality as well, but “The West Wing” inspired its idealistic Pollyannaish fans to try their hand at improving the status quo. Aaron Sorkin’s grandiose monologues about the power of a strong education helped create new, dedicated public servants.
“House of Cards” on the other hand seems hell bent on undoing all this good work done by “The West Wing,” singularly focused on discouraging aspiring public servants, all the while making future Underwoodian power brokers giddy with excitement over quotes about the value of power and money.
And if there is one thing “House of Cards” has shown, it’s that more Underwoods makes everyone worse off, and are ultimately a destructive force on American democracy.
So this Valentine’s Day, feel free to distract yourself from your loneliness with the tales of Underwood’s corruption. I certainly will be. But don’t pretend that he’s representative of Washington as a whole, and don’t lose hope that his success within the show means that the good guys always lose in real life.