What House of Cards Tells Us

A few critics have faulted the Netflix drama House of Cards for inaccurately portraying certain aspects of the American political process. This is like complaining that Shakespeare’s Richard III doesn’t sufficiently resemble his historical model. One of Art’s functions is to express truth in ways that more literal mediums can’t. In fact, Art often predicts life. Along these lines, House of Cards proves unnervingly prescient time and again. Its cynical rendering of government is as instructive as it is entertaining.

House of Cards highlights the immense difference between the Washington, D.C. power elite and most of the rest of the country. Inside the Beltway, power, not effective public service, is the ultimate goal for a legion of political insiders. By default, the most ambitious players live to control an ever-expanding mass of subordinates and followers. Almost everything is negotiable in this pursuit, and relationships are defined by their utility. While money and power are intrinsically linked, power is the more indispensable of the two. As antihero Frank Underwood says, “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone that doesn’t see the difference.” In other words, displayed luxury pales in comparison to the ecstasy of domination.

The series depicts Washington, D.C. as a gathering place for high-functioning sociopaths. There’s some truth to this, of course. By definition, sociopathy is “a mental health condition in which a person has a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting, or violating the rights of others.” Sociopathic traits include narcissism, pathological lying, superficial charm, lack of remorse or empathy, promiscuous sexual behavior, failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and criminal versatility. This makes Washington a case study of how far people are willing to go to maximize their insatiable desires. The colossal D.C. infrastructure runs on secrecy because every complex power play is a vicious political chess match. The players contrive their strategies in the shadows since deception is the only way to manipulate favorable outcomes, and everyone is playing the game whether they realize it or not.

Thus, appearance and reality are usually two different things. While the system demands a veneer of civility from its participants, lies serve as the primary interpersonal currency. By extension, loyalty is nothing more than a commodity bartered for self-interest, and it’s tossed away when it loses its luster. Successful politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists avoid wasting time on things that don’t advance these ends because time is of the essence, even for the most intelligent competitors who know how to play the long game. The smartest ones also know that threats and failure can and should be viewed as opportunities for success that simply need to be confronted and overcome on a regular basis. The weakest players are systematically manipulated and eventually crushed. Everyone is disposable. As Frank explains, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy. And casualties.”

People without a moral compass sometimes perceive human behavior with striking clarity. The most ruthless D.C. insiders are willing to leverage any situation to their full advantage without compunction given that they see morality as a mere tool of the will. Political action is just a matter of anticipating and capitalizing on the most advantageous scenarios. With malevolent self-confidence, these predators search for emotional triggers in others because they see emotion as a telling vulnerability. In fact, they view the American public as a contemptible mass of useful idiots who have no idea what’s actually happening inside the Beltway, political campaigns being perhaps the most notable evidence of this likelihood. And sadly enough, these machinations inspire a twisted brand of loyalty from the populace. Even when constituents gain a clearer view of what’s really happening in Washington, they might still support despicable politicians who serve their interests.

There’s much more to House of Cards. The show deals with polyamorous complications, fractured personalities, racial strife, and uncontrolled obsessions that go well beyond the sphere of politics. Granted, some dislike its unrelenting cynicism. They find its characterization of America’s political identity too unflattering. And despite the show’s many glowing accolades, even its biggest fans should keep in mind one of Frank’s cautionary warnings: “If you want to earn my loyalty, then you have to offer yours in return. And if we can agree to that—well, you’re a man with imagination.” Frank is right in an unintended way. While we can’t trust him and see the pointlessness of trying to earn his loyalty, he has certainly captured our imagination by making us rethink the mechanics of the democratic process.

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