‘House of Cards’: A cure for political cynicism?

I’m amazed at how many conversations I have in Israel where House of Cards comes up.

House of Cards (photo credit: REUTERS)
House of Cards
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a lot of Israelis, I am a big fan of US culture. And like a lot of people who work in my field, US politics is an abiding interest and passion.
Put the two together, and the result is a vaguely unhealthy obsession.
The latest incarnation of this obsession is House of Cards, the made-for- Netflix political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Underwood starts life as Majority Whip in the US Congress and rises, by the end of season two, to the cusp of the presidency.
Underwood is Machiavelli on steroids. Everything is pure political calculation. And everything is on the table if it furthers Underwood’s ambition.
Morality plays absolutely no role in Underwood’s life. Sentimentality and loyalty get only short shrift. Laws are there only to be skirted. It is pure pragmatism all the way. It is a bracing view of political life, but one which is refreshingly honest. And it is fast becoming a cultural reference point.
I’m amazed at how many conversations I have in Israel where House of Cards comes up. Increasingly it is finding its way into the opinion pages of newspapers, where Israeli ministers and politicians are measured up against the benchmark of Frank Underwood – and usually found wanting. Kurt Campbell, writing in The Financial Times earlier this month, noted the show has a huge following among the senior Chinese leadership in Beijing.
Apparently, the show confirms the suspicion and cynicism of many about how Washington actually works.
Even at home, my wife and I often ask one another – sometimes in jest, sometimes in earnest – “What would Frank Underwood do?” The House of Cards phenomenon seems to be part of a growing zeitgeist in how we view and analyze politics.
Only 10 years ago, our view of US politics was that enshrined by The West Wing and the biennial Bob Woodward books which documented the intrigues inside the US administration of the day.
These were dramas populated by larger-than-life figures and colossal policy struggles or questions of right and wrong. While sizeable egos were abundant, the ultimate story line was one of public service, not private ambition. It was about people striving to improve their country and the welfare of the citizenry. It was policy first, politics and personal advancement second.
But these days, the story line is very much about politics and personal advancement first, with policy a distant second. Mark Leibovich captured this mood with his bitingly cynical account of political life in Washington, DC, This Town. The HBO comedy Veep is the farcical – but deeply plausible – account of an ambitious vice-president struggling for relevance and advancement.
House of Cards lacks the comedy or light touch which infuses these other two, but it exceeds them both in portraying the dark arts of politics at an entirely new level of professionalism.
One cannot help but grudgingly admire the grand strategy and sheer cunning Frank Underwood brings to politics.
Commentators and politicians tend to bemoan the growing public disenchantment with politics, and the mistrust with which they view their political class. This is a trend just as evident in Australia as it is in Israel or the United States. And many will decry House of Cards for further fueling such cynicism.
But I question whether such a trend is in fact malignant. Too often public disapproval of politicians stems from unrealistic expectations about how much power and freedom elected politicians actually enjoy. People vote for an individual or party expecting them to implement their ambitious mandate and deliver on their (usually inflated) promises.
But once in office, politicians find themselves hemmed in from all sides – by their colleagues, their opponents, the checks and balances built into the system, pressure groups, continual polling and a relentless and probing media on a 24-hour news cycle.
Getting anything done proves difficult, never mind implementing your grandiose promises. Nasty compromises, unholy alliances and unpalatable trade-offs are the stock in trade if you want to make progress. Public disappointment and disillusionment invariably follow. My suspicion, though, is that politics is not getting any worse – but that what has changed is the level of realism by which we judge politicians. We tend to delude ourselves that there was a time when elected officials put country first and base political motives played no part.
But it has never been thus, even during times of war or existential crisis.
Anyone who has read Quintus Cicero’s advice to his older brother, Marcus, about how to run for Roman Consul in the elections of 64 BCE, will know that cynicism in politics is one of the few givens.
House of Cards
gives people a taste of politics as it really is, rather than the highly idealized West Wing version of how we might wish politics to be. In that sense it may be, counterintuitively, one of the best cures for public disenchantment with politics.
The author is the Australian ambassador to Israel.