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Political life lessons from ‘House of Cards’

Staff Columnist

Published: Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 20:02

Fiction has always had a lot to teach, and “House of Cards” may be no different. It could be televsion at its best, but its politics at its worst and, maybe, most honest. Lesson one: centrists, pragmatists and crooks.Fiction has always had a lot to teach, and “House of Cards” may be no different. It could be televsion at its best, but its politics at its worst and, maybe, most honest.

Lesson one: centrists, pragmatists and crooks.

 The late, great, political philosopher Ayn Rand once said, “There is right and there is wrong, and in the center there is evil.” It could just as well be said that in the center, there is Frank Underwood.

“House of Cards” often ridicules ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum. Tea Partiers and progressives alike are portrayed as entrenched, unreasonable and useless.

At first glance one might even assume that “House of Cards” is a figment of America’s longing for pragmatism. After all, the politics of “House of Cards” is, by and large, bipartisan.

The show features an education bill that increases funding for public schools, while simultaneously expanding school choice and taking on teachers unions. The show’s protagonists even tackle entitlement reform - raising the minimum retirement age - fighting Democrats and Republican along the way.

There is only one problem.

Do people really want bipartisanship if the cost is Frank Underwood? It’s not that every centrist is a cold-blooded murderer. The real problem is you can’t trust someone who doesn’t stand for something. Frank Underwood is exactly that. He wants power for the sake of having power. His ambition serves no greater purpose of any kind.

An ideologue you can trust. They might not be open to compromise, but you know where they stand.

The media screams for some kind of compromise. In reality, however, the American people instinctively run from pragmatism and moderation of any sort. Just look at the 2006 and 2012 Presidential elections - the losing candidate in both cases was pinned as a flip flopper.

The American people know in their guts that someone who will compromise on their most fundamental beliefs, or worse someone who has no fundamental beliefs can’t be trusted.

Lesson two: Journalists and politicians are two sides of the same coin.

Media personalities can be just as power hungry, corrupt, and amoral as politicians, a fact beautifully portrayed by House of Cards character Zoe Barnes, who is willing to lie, cheat, and sleep her way onto the front pages.

Why wouldn’t media personalities and journalists share in the character flaws of their political counterparts? After all, they often have as much, if not more to gain. There is far more easy money to be made in the cable news industry than even Washington as to offer. Talking heads on the television are often millionaires, receiving yearly incomes that dwarf those of their political counterparts.

According to actress Robin Wright, a senior person within the Obama administration, “Washington reporters really do sleep with their sources,” a favorite tactic of young journalists in the world of House of Cards.

It’s clear that reporters and politicians stand to gain from relationships with one another. After all, a kind word from one can make the career of the other.

Perhaps that’s why the media pines for centrists and pragmatists who lack strong principles. That, or they enjoy reporting on those politician’s inevitable scandals.

Most importantly “House of Cards” teaches us something about the American people. Gone are the days of the “West Wing.” Politicians are no longer portrayed as well-meaning idealists, and neither is Washington a place of optimism. At least for now, politics is seen as the art of deceit and betrayal.

“House of Cards” can’t be separated from the society that gave birth to it. Americans are fed up with politicians and they are fed up with government. They want a government that works, but they are skeptical of anyone capable of making it work.

Take New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for example. He was hailed as a bipartisan bridge builder, but recent revelations suggest he might be better at shutting bridges down.

Like “House of Card’s” Frank Underwood, Christie or his staff cared more about getting something done than doing the right thing.

Art really does imitate life. 

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