n February 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled their latest portrait—Kevin Spacey as President Francis “Frank” Underwood. The event’s provocative headline, “Art imitates Life,” was an invitation to consider how Spacey’s performance in Netflix’s House of Cards imitates American politicians’ real lives. The show has just launched its fifth season, securing its place as an authoritative rendition of American politics. Its message is as simple as it is cynical: politics is a struggle to gain and hold power. If many accept House of Cards as a window into Washington, it’s worth examining the show’s claim to accurately depict political life.
Critics paint House of Cards as overly dark political fantasy, engrossing, but ultimately implausible. It inhabits a world unrestrained by the Constitution’s checks and balances. Given that the universe of House of Cards is one of fantasy, it takes creative license with our textbook understanding of politics. But what if the opposite is true? House of Cards, instead of rewriting our rulebooks, might actually accurately portray the political narrative pundits and scholars put forth. House of Cards reinforces the cynical belief, held by many political scientists, that reduces politics to power struggles.
Ordinary citizens access politics through politicians’ words and deeds. From the citizen’s perspective, politicians ought to be judged on their reasons for supporting or opposing certain positions. Both the citizen and politician assume that the primary question, “What should be done?” initiates deliberation, evaluation, and choice between possible ends and principles.
This is politics, ordinarily considered. But what does the modern discipline of political science teach? Like House of Cards, it teaches that political action’s objectives are less important than the physical and psychological influences affecting politicians. Only by measuring power conflicts and influential actors’ psychology can one study politics. By claiming to have illuminated the forces that truly shape politics, modern political science reduces political action to nothing more than a power grab and delegitimizes principle or philosophy as the reason behind action. In this world, every politician is exposed as a proto-despot.
Thus, Frank Underwood. There is no place for political deliberation or trade-offs, because his goal is fixed from the beginning—to gain and hold as much political power as possible, as an end in itself rather than a means to other ends. There is suspense and shock as Frank does whatever is necessary to take and hold political power. Sometimes he suffers setbacks, but the viewer keeps watching, because he’ll potentially be successful in the next episode. Total failure means a series finale, with Frank in a coffin.
In an attempt to explain his psyche, House of Cards crudely infuses the drama with vulgarized Freudianism. We learn about Frank’s perversions and poor relationship with his parents. After his father’s death, Frank eulogizes him, praising him publicly. Nevertheless, thanks to Frank’s tendency to break the fourth wall with soliloquies, we’re given a line-by-line, “fact-check” commentary on his speech. We learn that his father was abusive, nasty, and despised by his son. Frank pretends to place flowers on his father’s grave, but in fact urinates on it. Overwhelming political ambition is reduced to traumatic fallout from a troubled childhood.
The show’s exploration of Frank’s psychology covers sex and father-figures, but neglects genuine political thinking. One can only wince whenever the show addresses the institutions, factions, and policy issues that form the substance of American politics. Frank has no real political ideas. The nadir of the show’s portrayal of politics as policy creation comes with his signature policy proposal: “America Works,” a stimulus package to reduce unemployment. Frank presents his Cabinet with “America Works” by standing in front of a flip chart with a single, handwritten number, explaining a concept, then flipping the chart. Each chart reveals a number scrawled in ink. A new chart brings a new number. He finishes with words written in big block letters. It’s politics for pre-schoolers.
Ideas are what unites and divides ordinary citizens in the political realm. By eschewing ideas, House of Cards reduces politics to rhetorical weapons and procedural tools. With nothing provocative, seductive, or shocking to say about his own political thought, Frank’s asides to the audience are banal. As a result, House of Cards’s characters are deformed. Their depravity is dull and repetitive, their struggles stunted and shallow. They act only upon their self-interest.
Why fret about a far-fetched drama that so badly caricatures politics? Because while art imitates life, life also imitates art. During the brutal winter spent at Valley Forge, Washington commissioned a presentation of Joseph Addison’s 1712 play Cato: A Tragedy, out of hope that his soldiers would see in its characters the virtue required for political life. When political art ceases to portray virtue, there are few models to instruct the governors or the governed. Without models to guide behavior and establish norms, citizens are vulnerable to influence peddlers and power lovers. Vulgarity triumphs when it becomes so ordinary that even awareness of virtue’s possibility is forgotten.
Social attitudes influence political dramas. Since Watergate, Americans have come to distrust their politicians as self-interested power seekers. TV drama now imitates political life not just as political science sees it, but also as Americans see it. House of Cards is art imitating and perfecting that cynicism about politics. It capitalizes on contemporary political attitudes and offers this cynicism as entertainment. In that respect, House of Cards is entertainment in the age of Nero, self-consciously fiddling while Rome burns.