They ain’t pretty, but these 5 lessons Netflix’s House of Cards teaches would allow the American public to grow up and have a more productive and mature political atmosphere, if less idealistic.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse February 26, 2015
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1!!! (But not seasons 2 or 3)
The great Niccolò Machiavelli wrote two major books: Discourses on Livy, a book about the world as he wished it was, and the more well-known The Prince, written as a manual for how to manipulate and persevere in the imperfect, cutthroat Italy in which he actually lived. The lessons from House of Cards, the hit Netflix TV show starring Kevin Spacey, are more in line with The Prince and the real-world gutter than Discourses and any ideal. As the third season is about to consume us on Friday, it’s worth looking into these lessons from Professor Frank Underwood.
5.) Stop caring about who’s sleeping with whom
If you want someone who is a “moral” leader in his personal, non-professional life, look to a religious leader. Above all, don’t look to your Congressman. Frank is sleeping with intrepid and dreadfully shallow/annoying Zoe Barnes, reporter for some crap blog we really shouldn’t care about but in the real world actually does matter, and possibly one of his old (male) school buddies. And oh, Claire is sleeping with that corny French-seeming photographer. And…who cares. Yes, there comes a time where all the sleeping around affects the passage of Rep Russo’s river development bill, but honestly, all kinds of petty things affect all kinds of bills and we’ll usually never know it. It’s just the way it is. And always has been. Why get more up-in-arms over sex than anything else? Honestly, sex is as good a reason to screw with a bill as any of the other far-too-common reasons we find today. And there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of against-the-rules sex going on Capitol Hill. Do you know how… old and how male many lawmakers are? And how young and attractive and female many interns and staffers are?? When I was on the Hill, interns were generally referred to as skinterns, with spaghetti straps and short hemlines ever-present (not a coincidence). And let’s just add drugs (shout out to self-described “hip-hop conservative” Rep. Henry “Trey Songz” Radel, arrested in 2013 on cocaine possession and doing his best Peter Russo imitation) to this rule, too, while you’re at it.
4.) Politicians generally don’t put their families first
Whether it’s for the causes they believe in or their own careers/power, politicians generally aren’t putting their families first, or they wouldn’t be politicians. If more people would just realize this, accept it, and move on, we stop wasting endless hours examining the family. Leave them out of it (even if they do stupid things). I mean, seriously, if you’re going to vote for a public policy professional based on what his kid, brother, or wife say/do, maybe you shouldn’t vote. Or engage in politics. Ever. Because do we really elect politicians to put their families first, or ours? Frank and Claire, like many power political couples throughout history, are a marriage of convenience. That does not mean here is not a form of love or genuine affection. And who are we to judge a marriage? Judge the political performance, and the rest is none of our business.
3.) You can’t take the backroom out of politics
Sure, we’ve banned earmarks. We added some lobbying restrictions. We “want” transparency. We put cameras in the House and Senate (with the effect of dramatically lessening the importance of any debate that actually happens on the floor and empowering megalomaniacal airtime addicts like Ted Cruz to engage in meaningless pseudo-filibusters that accomplish nothing legislatively, are entirely for public consumption, and are likely totally misunderstood by their intended audience). The 2013 “nuclear option,” the deal to end the shutdown and save us from default, the decisions and planning about the Iraq War… none of these were really conducted in the public eye, but behind closed doors. Frank Underwood understands this and even tends to do better behind the scenes than in the spotlight (remember his disastrous live debate with the head of the teachers’ union?) But then Frank triumphed on that issue with his behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and pretty much did everything big (from murdering Peter Russo to elevating himself to VP contention to bargaining for Peter’s water bill) behind closed doors. Stop clamoring for transparency and be happy with actual results; they don’t go hand in hand. Without wheeling and dealing, very little gets done. After an entire season of manipulation, which of Franks’s big plays were publicly known?
2.) Politics is personal
Politics is often about personal relationships and favors, but also revenge. And behind many a handshake lies a world of hate. Sure, we’d like personaldifferences to be put aside, and sometimes they are. But people need to be aware that many public figures are incredibly egotistical and have no trouble plotting long-term revenge for even slight offenses. And Frank is never shy about warning people not to cross him or he will make the disagreement personal. The sex-feud between Zoe and Frank is one of many cases in point: he tells Zoe, quoting Oscar Wilde: “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Sometimes these rivalries come to the surface (see the ever-obnoxious and strongly-disliked-by-many-fellow-Republicans Ted Cruz) but many more times they will seethe below the surface, the public blithely unaware of how they drive major events, just like in House of Cards.
1.) There is no loyalty
In the end, there is no loyalty. Sure, some people do try to be loyal. But the system tends to punish (not reward) them, making them pay a price. Just ask Peter Russo where his loyalty got him (discarded, if you’ll excuse the pun). The amount of tell-all books, leaks, and backstabbing (often done by people looking you in the eye with a smile) are proof enough of this. In the absence of a significant sense of loyalty, there are only three things: utility/usefulness, opportunity, and timing. Loyalty is like the stock market: it is bought and paid for by your utility when you are rising or hot, and can swing up or down based on the mood of the market and your performance. Where there are other opportunities, people are already shopping for other options, and the “loyalty” lasts until the timing for that opportunity seems right. That does not mean, just like in the market, that patience can’t and doesn’t pay off, but that should not be mistaken for any sense of loyalty. There are, predominantly, just the early jumpers and those who know when to time their desertion so that it looks better and protects their image. But make no mistake, before someone is abandoned, the act has been long in the works, and even when someone has not been abandoned, there has been exploration of other opportunities behind the scenes.
This is nothing new in politics. Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military philosopher and strategist, is best known for his quip that “War is the continuation of policy [or politics] by other means.” And, going back almost two-and-a-half thousand years, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote in his history of the Peloponnesian War that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” which Tom Ricks says “may be the most brutal line I’ve ever read.”
Brutal, but true. Especially if you live or work Washington. Or if you’re watching House of Cards.
House of Cards, even though it’s fiction, shows us that our own understanding of our own politics is about as solid as (you guessed it) a house of cards.
Here are many more articles by Brian E. Frydenborg. If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to him! Feel free to share and repost on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow him there at @bfry1981)