House Of Cards

In recognition of last week’s release of all 13 episodes of Season 2, we are reprinting – from our Chief Geopolitical Strategist, Marko Papic – an October 2013 review of the popular Netflix original series, House Of Cards.

House Of Cards

Anyone who has watched the TV series House Of Cards could quickly imagine how Francis J. “Frank” Underwood would resolve the ongoing government shutdown in Washington. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is the Democratic House Majority Whip from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. Congressman Underwood would likely combine several tactics to cajole and bludgeon his way to compromise:

  • Use ‘earmarks,’ i.e., spending on specific projects, to buy off reticent party members opposed to compromise.
  • Trade committee chairmanships like playing cards, rewarding compliant colleagues with juicy appointments.
  • Work with the opposing party behind closed doors to ensure that hold-outs within his own are irrelevant in the final vote count.
  • Threaten to make his party’s campaign war chest unavailable to House members who do not tow the party line.

Underwood is a figment of some very good imagination (and a healthy dose of inspiration from the original BBC series protagonist Francis Urquhart), but the fiction does not stop with the show’s characters. The entire series portrays a Washington political arena that no longer exists.

While House Of Cards has been praised for its realistic portrayal of D.C. lingo and social interactions, it actually gets the politics wrong:

  • Democrats are in control of both the presidency and the House of Representatives in the series, but that is difficult to imagine today. Republicans held on to the House even after losing the national tally for the House by over a million votes in 2012. This is a result of both redistricting and a natural advantage Republicans hold in rural districts, which are overrepresented in the House.
  • Republicans decided to do away with earmarks in 2011, thus taking away from the House leadership one of the most effective tools it has to keep its members in line.
  • Republicans aligned with the Tea Party can rely on funding from various conservative Super PACs, and therefore the Republican National Committee campaign war chest is far less relevant to them.
  • Tea Party members do not care about committee chairmanships.
  • The current House Majority Whip, Republican Kevin McCarthy, is largely irrelevant. Ted Cruz, the freshman Senator from Texas and a Tea Party darling, has more capability to whip the vote in the House than McCarthy.
  • And finally, the greatest fantasy of all, on par with hobbits and orcs in the Lord Of The Rings, is the concept of a white Democrat from South Carolina. The actual district that Frank Underwood supposedly represents as a Democrat, the South Carolina 5th, is staunchly conservative.

We still recommend House Of Cards because it does a good job portraying lobbyists and interest groups in Washington. It also illustrates the legislative process, the sausage making, realistically. In the series, “the American government” does not exist as an entity in and of itself, but rather as a setting where other characters pursue their interests. So while we recommend to our clients that they unwind with House Of Cards episodes after a long day at work, we also caution that they should not try to find Frank Underwood in the real U.S. Congress.

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