House of Cards and the dark underside of liberal democracy

Political dramas have never been quite my thing. The image I’ve had of them is about a bunch of grey bureaucrats having petty fights over office positions. Yet I did check out House of Cards for the good reviews it has gotten. Plus, I was interested in the supposedly cynical and realistic depiction of White House politics that the show seemed to offer. After two seasons my feelings are mixed: As the upside-down American flag in the show’s logo implies, HoC presents itself as a critical unraveling of what we liked to call “democracy”, putting shamelessly on display all the corruption and manipulative maneuvers politicians engage in. But, on the other hand, the show does not seem to be aware of its own ideological underpinnings and – paradoxically, perhaps – does not go deep enough in its critique of ideology.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Frank Underwood in the series poster – appropriately with blood on his hands

I

For those of you not familiar with the series, the story is about a Democrat congressman Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) who, after being denied the position of the Secretary of State, decides to go solo and starts acting on his plan to climb the ladder of power. He is supported by his wife Claire who is running a charity organization. As the story goes on, Frank gets ever more ruthless and pragmatic, ready to lie and to manipulate, to blackmail and even to kill journalists to cover his tracks. If Frank ever had any ideological commitments, it is clear that he’s lost them all, as he’s ready to sign any piece of legislature if it serves the purpose of advancing his career.

I won’t go into any further detail about the plot (see it for yourself!). From this rather short introduction it should be quite clear what “politics as usual” looks like for the creators of the show: the Congress consists of a group of self-interested and power-hungry representatives, ready to engage in tactical maneuvers to act on their motives and to sell themselves to lobbyists if the situation calls for it. It is a very cynical universe. If the ideology of democracy calls for politicians to represent and act on the will of the electorate, it is clear that this is not the vision House of Cards subscribes to.

The show seemingly has a very anti-ideological edge. As Randy Shaw explains in his piece on Huffington Post:

House of Cards portrays a political world where nobody (except perhaps the Tea Party) is driven by actual beliefs. That’s why its characters betray unions after winning their votes, environmental groups are shown making deals with corporate polluters, and reporters who actually believe in searching for “truth” are portrayed as hopeless knaves.

The White House is all about realpolitik. The only person in the series who makes an attempt to stand for the promises made to the electorate, Peter Russo, faces a gruesome end as Frank kills him and stages it as a suicide. His fate was essentially the same as that of naive and optimistic Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot”. It is not ideology, which is the driving force behind politics. Only the most ruthless ones succeed in the game of power.

This cynical universe is what Margaret Canovan – modifying terms adopted from Oakeshott – calls the “pragmatic” aspect of democracy. According to this view, democracy is about an institutional framework, within which groups and individuals act according to their particular interests, form coalitions and try to build consensus via discussions and compromises. What this institutional framework does is to provide a space for peaceful reconciliation of conflictual interests in an era of mass communication and mass mobilization. Although Frank Underwood might be a ruthless egotist, his actions do not take place in an institutional vacuum. He might try to circumvent the rules but they are, nonetheless, there, and they limit what he can do. Sometimes he even takes advantage of the rules, as seen, for example, in the scene where he – in the position of the President of the Senate – delivers a motion called “call of the house” to compel absent Republican senators to be present at the Senate Chamber so that a quorum would be present.

Opposing the pragmatic aspect, we also have what Canovan calls the “redemptive” aspect of democracy. The redemptive side is all about the People (with a capital P). According to this view, democracy is simply another name for executing the Will of the People, and in this way it is able to bring salvation through politics. The redemptive aspect has an anti-representational side to it: democracy should be about people taking charge of their own lives directly and not being controlled by a bunch of bureaucrats, who conduct discussions in secret and engage in corruption. In fact – since it is the very ideology of democracy – this redemptive vision is what we hear all the time whenever we hear politicians and intellectuals praising democracy in public speeches. It is also what politicians rely on when they try to appeal to voters (“Vote for us, for we will make sure your voice is heard!”). House of Cards mocks this view of politics. We are all the time shown how the public appearance of politicians, their appeals to the electorate, contradicts their actual practices (secret to the public, of course). Frank Underwood is definitely not a singular exception but merely the pinnacle of this rule.

Canovan’s point is that we can’t have one without the other. Both aspects of democracy exist simultaneously side by side. As she says, pragmatic politics without the redemptive aspect is like keeping a church going without faith: a self-defeating process. When politics gets too complicated, too corrupted, too opaque, and too alienating to the public, the redemptive side is going to reassert itself with a vengeance. This is how Canovan understands populism. It is an inherent part of democracy, keeping the pragmatic part of it in check. Where we find populist parties winning ever larger shares of votes, we will also find a technocratic, corrupt and bureaucratic government, to which these parties are reacting. This seems not to be the case in House of Cards though. There appears to be not much redemptivist-populist agitation going on. In fact, the only close picture we get of political protesters in the show portrays them as fakes (they were quickly assembled together by a teachers’ union and were easily derailed by Frank). And anyone acting with such motives is doomed to a miserable failure.

II

Now, as I see it, there are two ways to interpret this cynical-realistic universe of House of Cards (that is, if you don’t want to accept it as it is). The first one is to say that it is a kind of criticism of contemporary politics. Nobody wants to live in a society where all that politicians do is acting according to their own self-interest. Nonetheless – and this is what House of Cards seems to be saying – that is the reality of our situation. There’s a kind of journalistic ethos going on here: the ultimate political act is to expose reality as it really is, without the veil of ideology.

One could find some support for this view in the fact that many of the “good guys” in the show are either journalists or hackers, both of whom pose a serious threat to Frank and the business of politics in general. Even Zoe Barnes – the nosy journalist from season 1 – who seemed to side with Frank for a moment turned out to be very dangerous to him in the end, so much so that he decided to kill her. Much of season 2 consists of Frank trying to stop two of Zoe’s journalist colleagues from uncovering his master plan, and he succeeds in this in the end. A depressing moment for journalism.

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Zoe Barnes

In spite of these crushing defeats, the media is depicted as quite an omnipotent force in the show. Good PR is everything to these politicians. Make one mistake in your public appearance and your political career is over. Many of the battles between Frank and his antagonists are played in this very field. For example, during the teachers’ strike early on in the show, Frank was able to end the strike simply by staging a fist fight between him and the teachers’ union’s lobbyist Marty Spinella, ruining Marty’s media reputation. Frank also used this tactic to bring down Peter Russo by having him appear drunk on the radio.

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Peter Russo

Not to underestimate the weight of Frank’s crimes and his certain demise if those crimes were exposed to the public, but I think the show is a bit too optimistic about the force of media. The problem today is not that we’re lacking information – especially after Wikileaks – but that we’re unmoved by it. Was the United States forced to cut back on its war operations after Wikileaks exposed the war crimes and all the collateral damage of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Moreover, the conditions in Guantanamo Bay have been known even before Wikileaks and – after more than 10 years – the prison is still standing. But, you might say, how about the personal reputation of politicians? Couldn’t you at least take an individual person down by discrediting him or her publicly in the media? Well, as much as I would like to believe in that, I think the careers of people like Silvio Berlusconi prove otherwise. He’s been accused of illegal activities many times but has kept on returning to the political arena. Besides, we live in an era where politicians can even belittle and make fun of themselves in public (which makes me doubt whether political satire has lost the subversive core it might have once had).

But somehow I doubt that the creators of House of Cards are on a mission to expose the realpolitik of the White house in the hope that this might perhaps make us more critical of politics. The second interpretation would be that perhaps there’s really no agenda here. The world is fucked up and that’s it. Maybe the writers of the story are really just cynics and want to document reality as it is, without happy endings to please utopians and idealists. This would put the show to the same category as Game of Thrones – a series even more cynical than House of Cards. If we interpret the story this way it becomes a kind of an exposition of the egoistic nature of human beings and the corruptive effects of power and money.

III

The kind of a world presented in House of Cards (and Game of Thrones) is very tempting. There is something very alluring about the unveiling of appearances and getting to know the real motives behind the characters. Moreover, the appearance of cold hard realism is tempting; it’s a bittersweet pleasure to see the world in all its ugliness. But the alluring effect of shows like House of Cards should make us question why we’re drawn to the kind of realism presented in them. If we enjoy the show, it’s a sign that we’re ideologically engaged with it, that it caters to our fantasies about reality. In fact, the anti-ideological edge of House of cards is misleading, because it presents as reality the kind of a world that we find in the predominant liberal ideology, albeit in a dark guise.

What does the ideology of liberalism tell us? That we’re ultimately singular individuals acting on our own self-interests. Our actions might not be carefully considered and calculated (as the rational choice theory and game theory – commonly used in mainstream economics – suggest) but there is always a selfish motive behind them. Even if we seem to act altruistically, it can always be said that it’s only because we want to feel good about ourselves. From this singular self-interested actor we can then derive the values associated with classical liberalism and contemporary individualism, such as personal liberty, the individual’s right to freedom of action and self-expression.

It is, of course, possible to criticize the kind of views liberalism presents to us. It is possible to say, for instance, that we are not atomic selves but that our selfhood is constructed in our social relations and, therefore, that we’re social actors. Moreover, if you are psychoanalytically aligned, you could say that we’re, in fact, split subjects (the conscious and the unconscious). In this view the human being is characterized by antagonisms and contradictions. It is impossible to reduce actions merely to simple selfish motives because it’s in our nature that there is always a conflict of various motives. But this is not the place to advance a criticism of the liberal human being. My purpose was merely to show that the cold realism of House of Cards is alluring precisely because it appeals to the kind of ideological fantasies we’ve all been raised into.

Where do we find the symptoms of this liberal ideology in House of Cards? Putting the general outlook of the series aside for a moment, the most obvious sign for me is the lack of collective action/actors in the show. The closest we come to that is during the teachers’ strike early on in the show. But, as was already explain above, we don’t really get a good picture of the protesters. And the whole conflict was personified and resolved as a conflict between two individual people: Frank and Marty. Peter Russo’s rallying of the shipyard workers also died before it even begun and – again – in the form of Russo’s personal failure. There’s not even much party discipline in the show. Democrats are as eager to deceive each other as Republicans. Individual careerism is the only game in town.

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Marty Spinella’s futile protest

Big business is also personified in the form of greedy lobbyists and businessmen (a story written from another perspective would have maybe shown them as disposable parts of bigger automatic machine called “capital” – an abstraction but a real one). However, it is to the benefit of the show that big business is such a huge presence in House of Cards. There are three constraints for political maneuvering in the show. The first is the law, the second is PR and the third is business. Politicians are shown to be not only dependent on lobbyists and in tightly knit relations with business people but also constrained by business interests in the range of decisions they can make and the kind of options they have on the table. This is especially relevant considering that the last 30-40 years in the United States and Europe have been a period of low investment (and, therefore, low growth) and the rise of global financialization – trends, which have increasingly limited the scope of governments’ policy options and increased public debts, therefore placing states at the mercy of their creditors (for a compelling account of this history, see Wolfgang Streeck’s “Buying Time”).

Another curious symptom of ideology at work in the show is the figure of the innocent president. Garrett Walker is quite a sympathetic figure. He doesn’t seem to be engaged in political scams and, together with his wife, is portrayed as a kind of a human figure with normal human problems (he goes to marriage counselling with his wife). Unfortunately, he is also easy to fool, as Frank constantly demonstrates throughout the series. This figure of the innocent president is not a singular peculiarity; it can be found in many other (American) TV series and movies. For example, in the latest season of 24, president James Heller expresses his anger for not having been told about a drone strike, which killed civilians somewhere in the Middle East. If my memory serves me right, he is given a perfect reply: in order to keep his hands clean, Heller shouldn’t be informed about such dirty activities happening on the ground. The point is clear: the president should be above realpolitik and saved from the dirty business of politics as usual. By the way, this is also the kind of a relationship, which Frank has with Garrett in House of Cards. Frank keeps serving Garrett (with his own hidden motives, of course) by ethically questionable tactics with Garrett’s discreet approval. He is OK with Frank’s methods, as long as he is kept in the dark.

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Garrett Walker

Why is this figure of the innocent president a symptom of ideology? Once again, I need to refer to Žižek and his views on cynicism. For, according to him, total cynicism is impossible because the cynical worldview – that the world is cruel and full of egotists, etc. – is sustained by an object, which, as it were, remains ignorant and innocent. Žižek has many examples to illustrates this logic. One of them is the connection between the late 60’s sexual revolution and the figure of the innocent child. As we all know, the sexual revolution loosened up our moral standards, diversified sexualities considered pathological before and even lead to extremities, which remain controversial to this day. However, this development was coupled with another trend: the emergence of the figure of the innocent child. Whereas in psychoanalysis and during the times before the sexual revolution, children were considered sexual beings (Freud among others), in modern times children are extremely desexualized and the figure of the pedophile has become like an incarnation of Satan on earth. It is as if, even though sexuality is now perhaps more diverse and visible than ever, there has to remain an innocent gaze, someone who is not aware of what is happening – and this gaze is embodied in the figure of the innocent child. To take another example, from TV this time, there is a wonderful depiction of this same logic in the vampire series True Blood. Sookie’s (the protagonist) grandmother dies early on in the show but Sookie seems strangely unaffected by this, as if her beloved grandmother’s death didn’t have any emotional impact on her. However, the secret to her unaffected state of mind is soon revealed. Before she died, Sookie’s grandma had baked a pie. It is only when Sookie takes the pie out of the fridge and starts eating it that she breaks down in tears. The pie was a stand-in for her grandma; as long as the pie remained intact, the fact that the grandma was really dead hadn’t really hit Sookie on an affective level.

Going back to House of Cards, the figure of the innocent president is, I think, a stand-in for the purity of politics. As long as the head of the White House remains ignorant of it, realpolitik can go on. The cynical universe of House of Cards needs a character like Garrett Walker to sustain it; he is a symptom of the kind of an ideology House of Cards propagates. so what would have been the way out of this deadlock? I would say: go all the way! Attack the object, which sustains one’s ideology. In other words, deprive the president of his innocent status and portray him as a corrupt politician like everyone else, or, perhaps even better, as a person corrupted by his office and status. If the authors had done it that way, they would have rendered visible the corruptive nature of the political system as such. Now the show seems to sustain the illusion that politics would be different with different actors: remove the corrupted politicians and all would be fine.

IV

It’s time for a conclusion: House of Cards, in spite of its attractive cynicism and anti-ideological edge, remains caught in the ideological constraints of contemporary liberalism. Frank Underwood, far from exposing to the audience the real nature of politicians behind their democratic rhetoric (as if didn’t already know), complies just nicely with a) the figure of a liberal human being acting on his or her own self-interest and b) the image of politics as a play field of individual actors trying to climb the ladder of power, which, I think, is the dark underside of consensus politics. The latter, as explained above apropos Canovan, refers to the pragmatic view of democratic politics, which emphasizes the role of institutional constraints as peaceful containers and reconcilers of conflicts between adversaries with their own specific interests. The goal of these constraints and deliberative proceedings is, of course, to establish a consensus among all parties, therefore coming to a solution, which serves everyone involved. Of course, the implication of this is that the parties involved should be able to leave their particular interests aside and come to a compromise, which benefits all. Frank Underwood, although able to circumvent the rules and use them to his own advantage, exists solely within this ideology of consensus – as its dark shadow. He doesn’t stand for universality but particularity; his motive is not the universal interest but his own private one.

I do not think politics should be about reaching an agreement between adversaries. what this consensus view of politics hides is the irreconcilability of deep antagonisms, which constitute the society. Apropos class struggle, it is impossible to find lasting agreements between capitalists and the rest of the people (workers and the unemployed), for the very existence of the former depends on the exploitation of the latter. To take a very concrete example of this, during a time of crisis higher wages cannot be in the interests of capitalists because to raise wages is the same as to cut profits. Moreover, mass unemployment, especially if welfare programs and labor legislation are weak, actually benefits capitalists: it is a way for them to pressure people into accepting lower wages and poorer conditions of work. Welfare of the mass of people is not in essence aligned with the interests of capitalists, who are always forced to act on the basis of the profit motive.

What this exploitative relation between capitalists and the rest of the people also implies is the asymmetricity between their respective positions. Whereas the former stands for particularity, the latter stands for universality. The interests of capitalists are particular interests, only serving the class of capitalists, while the interests of the rest of the people stand for the universal interest of the demos, of people as such. The ideology of consensus politics implies the particular nature of the actors involved in the decision-making process, therefore obscuring, not only the antagonistic relations of the actors, but also the place of universality – for universality is not represented in the reached consensus but in the interests of one apparently particular party in the debate, the party standing for the people (as opposed to the capitalists).

So, if Frank Underwood is not the kind of a figure of a politician we need, what would be? I’m willing to take cue from Žižek, who has issued a call for a new master figure for the Left in the form of a Leftist Thatcher. As we all know, Margaret Thatcher was relentless in her attacks against the working class. Most famously, she was able to suppress the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Žižek attributes to her the ability to change the entire coordinates of political debate, transforming the way we talk about the economy and what is possible:

Margaret Thatcher, the lady who was not for turning, was such a Master, sticking to her decision which was at first perceived as crazy, gradually elevating her singular madness into an accepted norm. When Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement, she promptly answered: “New Labour.” And she was right: her triumph was that even her political enemies adopted her basic economic policies – the true triumph is not the victory over the enemy, it occurs when the enemy itself starts to use your language, so that your ideas form the foundation of the entire field.

So, it would be interesting to decouple the particular egoistic motives of Frank Underwood and the relentlessness according to which he acts. Do we not need someone who is as determined as he is on our side? Do we not need someone who is able to push through our views without resulting in a weak compromise? Do we not need someone who would not accept the rules of the debate as given but have the debate on our terms instead? Iron determinacy and an uncompromising attitude are not necessarily bad features for a politicians to have. In fact, they are precisely the kind of features we should expect from a political figure who acts according to the interests of the people, or, in other words, the universal.