House of Cards Season Three and How Politics Really Works

17 January 2015

The latest American President to occupy the White House will do so next month when unscrupulous President Frank Underwood’s term of office begins in earnest on season three of Netflix’s House of Cards.

As Underwood , Kevin Spacey , whose previous roles include Shakespeare’s villainous power-seeker Richard III,  stops at nothing ,including killing, to ascend the greasy pole of high-level politics.

He began the first series as Chief Whip in Congress who manipulates his way single-mindedly to become Vice-President, and then on to the Oval Office after engineering the resignation of the President.

He accomplishes his aims through guile, charm, patronage, threats, lobbying, and short-term alliances.

He orchestrates downfalls, grooms incompetent candidates against his worthier rivals, pushes a too-curious female journalist under a train, kills a candidate for Governorship of Pennsylvania , and succeeds in encouraging the sitting Vice President, a former Governor of  Pennsylvania to run again for Governor.

It is Emmy award-winning material.

It is superb television drama.

But is this how politics “really works”?

As in much of US political drama, political issues are rarely aired or explored .

On these matters, House of Cards has nothing to say.

The focus instead is on alpha-male politics as represented by the politician as a person.

Contrast this with the fate of a fictional female candidate for US Vice President in the film The Contender with Joan Allen as Senator Laine Hanson

The Vice-Presidency becomes vacant and she is a contender.

When she arrives at the White House to meet the President, her husband is advised to go AWOL during any possible campaign because of how it might look – if a wife is seen in public with her husband as the candidate , then that is the wife showing her support for her husband. If the husband is seen in public with his wife as candidate, then that is the husband pulling the strings.

The President (Jeff Bridges) nominates her, and confirmation hearings are then held in Congress on whether she should be approved or rejected for the Vice Presidency.

Voluminous records are gathered.

She hopes to discuss with the committee her support for a woman's right to choose, the abolition of the death penalty, gun control, and the right to privacy.

But the committee prefer to dwell instead on her alleged participation in a student sex orgy when younger, and a subsequent accusation of “involvement in prostitution”

She is asked if she is “still able” to have children, is planning to have more children as Vice President , and if so, would she take maternity leave.

The Committee Chair played by Gary Oldman, describes her as “a cancer of liberalism”, “ a cancer of virtuous decay”

Her response , near the conclusion of the film , is :

“Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they're inconvenient.”

These two political dramas – one of battles of dominance and colliding egos amongst men and the other of – a woman standing for respect, civility and integrity - have different messages.

The Contender illustrates different rules for men and women in politics.

Joan Allen’s character is asked if she would be planning to have more children as Vice President - a question never asked of men seeking jobs and totally unacceptable for women.

Gary Oldman’s chair of the committee shouts in anger as a display of power at some of Joan Allen’s replies to questions.

She listens in silence.

He talks frequently with prolonged observations to establish his authority as committee chair.

In House of Cards, the message is that being thoroughly unlikeable and ruthless is the route to success in politics and in government.

Such cold selfish calculation, however, would not have produced our National Health Service.

In fact, Governments have done a great deal over decades to improve people’s lives in education, health and communications through public funding.

And there are politicians who have resigned from office on grounds of principle.

There is no doubt that House of Cards has a magnetic pull on those interested in and active in politics.

But politics is very much more much than House of Cards shows us.

There is a place for “idealists without illusions”

And idealism, hard work and dedication can bring success to politics, measured not by personal achievement, but by advances right across society.


 Frank Underwood's "Best Monologue"


  Kevin Spacey as Richard III


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