[WARNING: Spoiler Alert!] Revealing references to the House of Cards plotline are dispersed throughout this article. If you prefer to enjoy the plot twists, please watch season 3 first (not to mention seasons 1 and 2 if you’ve been living under a rock), then come back and enjoy the article.
It’s only been two years since House of Cards burst onto our screens with a unique viewer proposition and uniquely depraved plotline, but the $100 million, Netflix-exclusive gamble has irreversibly captured America’s attention and (arguably) cut its heart out. And while you can applaud screenwriter Beau Willimon’s visionary prediction that “streaming is the future” of the TV economy, you may want to hold your applause for the political values his fictional cast is normalizing.
Let’s start with the obvious. Neither of the main characters, Frank or Claire Underwood—at this point the president and first lady of the United States—supports the four principles at the core of the conservative ethic: limited government, rule of law, personal responsibility, or traditional morality.
1. Limited Government
We get our hopes up for limited government as early as season 3’s second episode, when President Frank Underwood goes on prime-time television to announce a $500 billion rollback of entitlements—only to have those hopes dashed by the ironic subsequent rollout of “America Works,” a guaranteed employment program that makes FDR’s New Deal budget look like peanuts (“If you want a job, you get one”).
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Frank is a twenty-first-century, lame-duck Democrat who is just eighteen months from an election, and has lower approval ratings than President Bush did at the end of his second term. Hence, the postmodern political method of creating short-term jobs to curry favor with a fickle electorate prevails over the well-documented warnings of a boom-and-bust cycle political economy.
2. Rule of Law
So, here’s an average day in the life of President Frank Underwood:
- Announce super-controversial jobs program that Congress will never approve
- Circumvent congressional legislative authority by declaring a state of emergency (rampant unemployment) and raiding funds from FEMA (via the Stafford Act)
- Secure direct administrative control of FEMA by impulsively firing the secretary of Homeland Security in a cabinet meeting
- [Try to] avoid a legal battle by manipulating the Supreme Court justice appointment process
- When plan appears to be failing, break public promise not to run again and campaign on the platform “It worked in DC—it can work in your state, too.”
If you feel like you’re watching a soap opera about a sixteenth-century British monarch, don’t worry...you’re not alone. In Columbia Law professor Philip Hamburger’s latest book, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, he makes the helpful distinction between rule through law and rule of law. The former requires due process and a tripartite balance of power, while the latter only takes “a pen and [nowadays] a phone.” The return of controversial, extra-legal edicts to a democratic republic sounds eerily similar to the reigns of Henry VIII and James I, but hey, it makes for one hell of a too-close-to-reality-for-comfort TV drama.
3. Personal responsibility
Frank and Claire Underwood will pull any stunt and dodge any responsibility if the only alternative is a loss of power. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps, diagnosed this paranoid clinging to positions of authority with a simple thesis: “The will to power and will to pleasure are but side effects of the frustrated will to meaning.” In other words, a life devoid of a higher calling or eternal purpose will default to the less-desirable consolations of “whatever feels good”—a.k.a. pheromone-inducing orgasms and adrenaline-inducing power trips.
Sure, the two-faced president and his controlling wife have [mostly] conquered the temptation to indulge a “will to pleasure,” as evidenced by this season’s noted absence of romantic flings (no Zoe Barnes or Adam Galloway) and inability to have sex while looking at each other. But they have not risen above the “will to power.” Their hope for salvation lies not in fulfilling such responsibilities as “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” but rather in struggling ever onward and upward. Even once they have reached the top, it does not occur to Frank or Claire that the rat race is over and they are still addicted to power for its own sake.
4. Traditional morality
The ruthless motive behind this power couple’s every move is both Machiavellian and Nietzschean. The end justifies the means, and the end is merely to survive. As we see at the end of episode 6, this impulse has no regard for collateral damage. Aboard Air Force One, Claire’s conscience provokes her to utter the words, “We’re murderers, Francis.” He immediately shoots back: “No, we’re not! We’re survivors.” This is the root of the existential nihilism that grows like a weed in the hearts of every jaded, cynical politico.
Another brief glimmer of soul-searching comes with eight minutes left in the next-to-last episode of the season, when Claire breaks off an argument in the White House kitchen to defiantly challenge, “I'm starting to question all of it, Francis – what any of it is worth. What, what are we doing this for?” Her husband looks her dead in the eye, without flinching or hesitation, and articulates the apparently self-evident truth—“For this house. For the presidency.” Claire’s question is an exemplary echo of the timeless proposition: “What good is it to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”
Without an answer to this all-important question, none of us can become the upstanding statesmen we want to be, nor the virtuous citizens we should be. It is not enough just to have a concept of the greater good—Frank and Claire articulate it eloquently at every campaign stump speech in Iowa. “Knowing the problem” is no longer the simple precursor to “Acting to fix it,” as Hannah Arendt made abundantly clear through Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Maybe Washington is as corrupt as House of Cards portrays, maybe not. Either way, it is up to the rest of us to seek justice and love mercy, to advocate for limited government, to support leaders who rule through law instead of making up their own, to take personal responsibility for our actions, and to uphold traditional morality. As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed about our country: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Cropped image courtesy of Photo Giddy, February 27, 2013.