The House of Cards Hypothesis: Why the British Get Washington Better Than Hollywood Does

There are advantages to having your political and cultural capitals in the same city.
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Yes, the British are coming. And they’ve already taken over the capital—at least on TV.

Shows and films set in Washington have undergone a dramatic revolution. Gone are the starry-eyed days of The West Wing and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In are the Machiavellian intrigues on House of Cards, the blundering characters on Veep, and the scandals on, well, Scandal. This shift reflects the viewing habits of a more disillusioned American public as well as the sensibilities of millennials (the Girls generation doesn’t do feel-good).

But the changing portrayal of Washington is as much a geographical shift as a generational one. Two of the leading shows in this cynical wave—House of Cards and Veep—are British in origin. House of Cards, whose second season debuts on February 14, is an American recreation of its British namesake—hence the (spoiler alert!) convoluted plotline in which Kevin Spacey’s character seeks to maneuver directly from being House majority whip to president. (In the U.K.’s parliamentary system, an MP can become prime minister by taking down the government; in the American system, Spacey has to take a detour through the vice president’s office.)

Veep, for its part, descends from a long line of British government spoofs—think of it as “Mr. Bean Goes to Washington.” Veep’s Scottish creator, Armando Iannucci, was behind the BBC’s Whitehall satire The Thick of It. His movie spinoff In the Loop lampooned the Anglo-American “Special Relationship.” Iannucci was, in turn, inspired by the BBC’s 1980s classics Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister—the best depictions from either side of the Atlantic of government at its most surreal.

Washington shows used to follow the same fundamental trope: someone powerful trying to fight for the “little guy” collides with someone powerful out to screw the “little guy.” But the reality of the nation’s capital is far more interesting: Everyone in Washington feels like the “little guy” even if, Oz-like, their frailties are obscured by the trappings of power. The inner lives—and inner workings—of government are far more layered than simple battles of good and evil.

Why is Hollywood now turning to Britain for inspiration about American politics? Three reasons stand out.

The first is proximity to political power. Most Western countries have capitals that are also their cultural centers. In London, as in Paris or Rome, artists reside alongside politicians. Proximity breeds contempt. But it also breeds understanding—or at least more accurate mocking. For centuries, British writers were dependent on royal patronage or whim for their careers. As they negotiated ever-changing political circumstances, they sought to humanize or pillory their leaders—but always to understand them as artistic subjects. Shakespeare is the greatest example of the intermingling of British writing and power.

The effects of proximity persist to this day. Yes Minister co-creator Jonathan Lynn became interested in satire after meeting young politicos at Cambridge University: “They … were the most pompous, self-satisfied, self-important bunch of clowns that I’ve ever clapped eyes on.… I thought at that point that the only way that I could ever contribute to politics is making fun of the politicians.”

In America, D.C.’s separation from New York and Los Angeles has stunted cultural understanding of government. In the case of Hollywood and Washington, distance has bred mutual admiration. It’s not just the usual clichés about these two “company towns”—“D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people,” “politicians are like actors reading their lines,” “everyone is playing a role,” etc. This mutual admiration reflects how little Hollywood and Washington really understand each other (fundraisers, Jack Valenti, and the Emanuel brothers aside) and how much they envy their differences.

For Hollywood, idealized Washington has served as a projection of the impact that artists seek through their work—or their ego. T.A. Frank described watching The West Wing as a bit like being “forced to watch [Aaron Sorkin] play with his action figures, or possibly himself.” For Washington, idealized Hollywood is a place where you can be creative—free of the constraints imposed by low salaries, bland wardrobes, and the puritan moralism that politicos at least have to feign. We want to play with the toys that real fame provides. To bring it back to high school: Beautiful people long to be taken seriously; nerds long to be cool. Hence the speechwriters and screenwriters who shuttle back and forth between the cities trying to be both smart and cool.

Kevin Spacey stars as the sinister Congressman Frank Underwood in House of Cards. (Netflix)

There is a second reason why London understands Washington so well: class. With rising inequality, America is becoming more like traditionally class-based Britain (by several measures, in fact, the U.S. is more unequal now than the U.K.). And Washington is its most class-based city. D.C., of course, has always had a touch of Victorian England in it; the Crawley family from Downton Abbey would fit right in. Social relations in Washington are hierarchical and formal: As with lord and vassal, you provide homage to your boss, who in turn offers you favors and protection. But peer beneath the veneer of propriety and you’ll find every imaginable indiscretion. Not to mention, the Empire is in decline.

British humor in particular has historically been class-based and class-reinforcing. In a society that readily acknowledges its social hierarchy, there is a great deal of fun to be had in temporarily subverting it. Comedy, in shows like Yes Minister and Keeping Up Appearances, thus functions as a safety valve, alleviating tension while heightening distinctions of power and privilege (the approach is also evident in British dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs, the original Downton Abbey). We’re now beginning to see Washington dramas explore issues of class as well. Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, for instance, portrayed racial and socioeconomic inequality with an authenticity that Charlie Young’s character in The West Wing never attained.

But it’s not just a deeper understanding of class that makes British shows newly resonant in the U.S. Whereas Americans once viewed power very differently than Brits, we’re now coming around to the view of our counterparts in the U.K.

In the U.S., it’s not just speechwriters-screenwriters who fashion idealized leaders; we all do. Americans like to imagine that we could—by choice!—be president “when we grow up.” And while scheming presidents have become a fixture on screen since Watergate, they are depicted as usurpers to our democratic tradition—Nixons to our Camelot.

In Britain, power has historically been inherited. Recognizing that the accident of birth could propel anyone to the throne, British artists have often portrayed their monarchs as real human beings, with every conceivable failing or foible. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Of course, power in British history is not just inherited. It is acquired by some, squandered by others, and stolen from still others. Henry VII seized the crown from Richard III in battle. His son Henry VIII initially ceded much of his authority to his advisor Cardinal Wolsey, only to later increase his power at the expense of the Catholic Church. A century later, Charles I lost power—along with his head—in the English Civil War. Charles II regained the crown, but Parliament ditched his younger brother and chosen successor, James II, in favor of William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution.

Even in today’s democratic Britain, court intrigue remains at the heart of politics. Margaret Thatcher was ousted by a breakaway faction within her Conservative Party. Tony Blair was unseated by Gordon Brown. If Labour leader Ed Miliband eventually becomes prime minister, the key moment in his rise will be when he turned on his brother. This all makes for good drama. 

American politics has its own endless machinations. But the primacy of elections has contributed to the popular conception that the most dramatic political moments occur in public rather than in the cloistered corridors of power. Yet in today’s America, where the meritocracy seems to be faltering and where elections—indeed the entire economic and social system—increasingly appear rigged by a new aristocracy, the British depiction of power politics has never rung more true.

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Ari Ratner is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He previously worked in the State Department under the Obama administration.

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