Steve Kornacki was kind enough to have me on Up With Steve this weekend to talk about House Of Cards, along with Corey Stoll, who played Peter Russo in the first season, TPM’s Sahil Kapur, and Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto:
We discussed any number of subjects, including how novel the Netflix model of releasing all of the episodes of a season at once actually is. But I wanted to linger a little bit longer on one part of our conversation.
One thing that frustrates me about House of Cards, and about Beau Willimon’s work more generally, is how dismissive he is of ideology and interests. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) has no discernible reasons for being a Democrat, no particular view about how the world best functions, or what is fair and just. We have no sense of what the national mood and national needs are, which makes it even more puzzling how President Walker ascended to the highest office of the land, given his utter lack of savvy and Frank-like skills of manipulation. There are no constituencies who need to be appeased, or pandered to, or courted come election year in House Of Cards. Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker) may trot out lists of people who would be affected by a government shutdown, but they’re never more substantial than those boxed-up reams of paper. Once the teacher’s union plot dissipated in the first season, there aren’t even really interest groups: we’ve been left mostly with the lingering, Koch-esque shade of Raymond Tusk.
This total disinterest in ideology and the dynamic ecology of politics has, for me, always undermined House Of Cards‘ claims to be an authentic or realistic. There are people in Washington who behave with ruthless attention to their own careers, but it doesn’t always keep them on a steady ascent to the Oval Office–witness, for example, the way Senate Republicans recently shook off Sen. Ted Cruz’s efforts to turn the latest fight over the debt ceiling into a chance to burnish his own image. Even our fair city’s real-life Machiavellians recognize the value of ideology as a tool to help them gain power, even if they’re personally unmoved by the worldview they’re espousing. Cruz’s stunt was, after all, entirely about burnishing his conservative bona fides.
And the truth is that not everyone in Washington wants to be President of the United States, and their commitment to ideology over their own advancement can be the key to their victory in policy fights. My own recently-departed boss Tom Perriello, who’s left the Center for American Progress for the State Department, may have lost his Virginia Congressional seat over his vote for the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t make him a loser. The point, after all, was to pass health care reform, not to stay in Congress forever. But that’s an order of priorities House Of Cards can’t really seem to comprehend. And I think it makes the show weaker.
As I said on Up, House Of Cards‘ total disinterest in ideology means that there’s an inevitable, gaping hole in the show’s portrayal of Frank Underwood. We have no idea why he wants to be President, other than that the job is there for the taking, and we have no real sense of what he’ll do with the position when he’s there. That emptiness makes it much more difficult to either root for Frank or to view his ascension with any sort of dread. He’s just another little man who’s convinced that he’s somehow different from his peers, an idea that House Of Cards is invested in, at cost to its actual sophistication. To a certain extent, Frank’s emptiness is interesting. The idea that he’s had to kill off the parts of himself that were specific and human in service of his rise has elements of tragedy, and the episode of the show set at his college reunion, which explored those ideas, remains the show’s best. But the second season of House Of Cards largely abandons the sense that Frank has made some sort of ascetic commitment to his own rise. Instead, he can get away with everything because, as we’re constantly told, he’s just so darn smart.
And therein lies the show’s second problem: there’s no worldview that’s a credible alternative to Frank’s, and no genuinely exciting antagonist for him. In Raymond Tusk, Frank’s essentially faced another version of himself, a powerful man invested in no particular interests except his own, attempting to manipulate politics from outside the system, rather than with deep familiarity of its cogs and levers. In this battle, House Of Cards suggests that it’s better to be inside than out, but not for any particular reason. The one actually ideological Congressman we see is presented as a bit of a loser and a dupe, a man who’s rolled over for Frank before, and when he gets his blood up to impeach President Walker, doesn’t realize that he’s playing right into Frank’s hands. It would have been fascinating to see Frank square off against a capable opponent employing a genuinely different set of tools than he did, capable of marshaling public opinion, keenly attuned to an actual election cycle, hot-blooded where Frank is not just frozen, but desiccated. Such a juxtaposition might have forced Willimon and House Of Cards to make an actual argument for Frank Underwood’s worldview, rather than just insisting on his genius. The inevitability of Frank’s victories, as much as the show’s constant musical and visual monotony, makes House of Cards fantastically dull.
If House Of Cards was willing to put Frank at actual risk, the show might have had something real and true to say about politics. Instead, the show is peddling a smug contempt for Washington as if it’s something new, rather than a ancient canard. Frank Underwood may abhor ideology. But his recent success is rather more dependent on it than he might like to admit.