House of Cards channels U.S. political angst

Over the last two weeks, it seems that everyone has been watching House of Cards on Netflix. Admit it. You have too. And why not? It is a great show, beautifully shot and artfully acted. It intelligently reflects on political maneuvering and power in our nation’s capital. But its appeal runs even deeper than that. House of Cards expresses some of the fears and hopes that Americans have about our current government.

The show’s relevance is due in large part to its dark portrayal of the government. Look at Washington D.C. right now. Congress seems allergic to getting anything meaningful done and had an all-time low approval rating of nine percent this fall. This was after Congress refused to fund the government, causing it to shut down and bringing pain and frustration to many ordinary Americans. President Obama’s approval rating is higher, but the hopeful message of change on which he campaigned in 2008 now seems completely unrealistic.

House of Cards appeared in this gloomy political atmosphere as a sign of the times. It shows our nation’s capital as a dark place, full of backroom deals and political scheming. The main character – and anti-hero – is Frank Underwood, House Majority Whip and soon to be Vice President. Underwood has no principles, no ideals and an intense desire to acquire power. He constantly forms temporary alliances and plays his opponents off each other for his own personal gain. This is a world that American citizens never see but suspect exists. House of Cards is the perfect show for our current political climate.

But the show is complicated. It not only gives expression to our nation’s gloom about government, but it also bears witness to some of our secret hopes.

It is true that Frank Underwood is a power-hungry, homicidal antihero. This should not disguise the fact that he is a very talented legislator who actually gets things done. An education bill. Entitlement reform. Americans only dream about this type of legislative action. Yes, he is immoral and manipulative, but he gets results, and that is the one thing that it seems Congress has repeatedly failed to provide over the past few years.

In Episode 13 of Season 1, Underwood addresses the camera while seated at his desk. On his desk is a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro. This is no coincidence. Johnson was the Senate Democratic Leader before he became President, and he was famously successful at gathering votes by whatever means necessary.

Underwood shares Johnson’s willingness to get his hands dirty in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. LBJ didn’t kill to get what he wanted, but he was willing to manipulate, cajole and threaten. He traded favors and called in debts, all for the sake of getting it done.

House of Cards portrays Washington as a place devoid of hope. And while this is a pessimistic view of America’s current political atmosphere, it sure makes for some entertaining television. So I say, keep watching.

Nick Bowlin ’16 bowlin@stolaf.edu is from Princeton, N.J. He majors in political science and history.

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