The Terrible, True Insight of 'House of Cards': Bad People Run D.C.

Money and partisanship matter less in politics than the thirst for power. Netflix's new drama gets that, even if Hollywood often doesn't.

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Los Angeles only has three stories to tell about Washington, and House of Cards has picked the most intriguing one.

The first story is about money. It's the classic story of Washington as a city for sale. The premise is not only true, but superlatively so, after the most expensive election cycle in history. Yet a financial critique is also convenient for the studios, because it drains politics of most ideological baggage. Take The Campaign, an election-year comedy that grossed $103 million without saying anything about either political party. Its criticisms were confined to campaign spending in the Citizens United era; every other 2012 controversy was so carefully spared, Warner Bros. could have run a disclaimer stating no sacred cows were harmed in the production.

The other dominant story about Washington laments that politics is getting in the way of government.

This is the recurring, naïve belief that everything would be better if The Politicians just stopped bickering and worked toward the common good. The idea is appealing for the same reason that money makes an easy mark—there are no tradeoffs, no sacrifices, and no details. There is just a vague, Sorkin-esque faith in the American experiment.

In its purest form, like the vapid, 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this kind of story is not even about politics at all.

It requires the rejection of politics, in pursuit of some magical public interest that, conveniently, requires no actual reconciling of competing values. With no debatable controversies, the audience can mindlessly savor the triumph of something unquestionably good (say, Sen. Smith's youth camp) over something bad (corrupt party bosses).

This anti-politics matches a delusion that many political novices share with entitled elites—the indulgent notion that one's personal values transcend "ideology," and instead, reflect a universal "common sense."

Most of Hollywood's political projects fit into those two boxes. That is one reason why House of Cards distinguished itself immediately.

David Fincher's new political thriller, released in 13 episodes on Netflix, takes a different and much darker path. His tale begins with a clear take on Washington: It is the source of evil. Not a place reduced to evil, because of political infighting or external financial pressure.

No, this is a story about the Beltway as a magnet for bad actors.

The players and wannabes hustle through town, constantly measuring and modulating their proximity to the power centers of the White House and the Capitol. The show's opening sequences feature Washington in time-lapse photography, emphasizing the rush of the town—a blur of replaceable people against a backdrop of immovable buildings, temporary cogs working in the permanent power structure.

One critic dubbed Fincher "the king of glossy decay," a mood that is evident here. Washington is presented as a hypocritical sanctuary for high-functioning power-addicts, a place where people who don't like to be controlled can gather and try to control others.

Frank Underwood, played with an almost ridiculous intensity by Kevin Spacey, is the leader and narrator of this gathering. The South Carolina congressman is a close adviser to the president, a hidden hand in the media, and the majority whip in the House of Representatives. The whip, which ranks third in party leadership, does not typically drive politics. In the spirit of legalistically daft fact-checking, you could contrast Underwood's notoriety to the real, obscure majority whip (it's Kevin McCarthy); or shake your head at the shots of Underwood constantly huddling at the White House, when the real president's whip, Steny Hoyer, only made the trip five times during Barack Obama's first year in office (according to public visitor logs).

But that would miss the point. House of Cards is aiming for truth, not accuracy.

Underwood may be a dramatization, but his ticks are familiar. He is a hopped-up version of a dominant archetype in national politics: People who enter the arena for the same reasons a big audience still watches it—the thrill, glory, and ambition. Policy and morality run a distant second and, even then, often serve as props to underscore "the stakes" of the maneuvers involved, not as dimensions of independent substance.

That is the depravity that House of Cards captures so thoroughly. There are big issues—a teacher's strike, an education bill, nuclear policy, West Bank settlements—but for Underwood, and, most of Washington, they are just cards to play in the game.

Underwood pressures a young congressman to sell out military jobs in his district, then tutors him on reversing his policy stances for political gain. The presentation of these events is definitely more sudden, histrionic, and baroque than the daily thrust of life on Capitol Hill. Both congressmen appear in a drunken, twilight bathtub razor scene, for example, and Underwood delivers soliloquies that evoke a local Shakespeare production. But the gist rings true.

Washington is deeply frustrating because so many of the positions that politicians hold are a product of ephemeral self-interest. They reverse themselves, for themselves, all the time.

Many Congressional Republicans backed an individual health-care mandate before Obamacare, but now they revile it. Congressional Democrats slammed President Bush's policies on civil liberties and income taxes, then ratified most of them in Obama's first term. Any specific examples can be audited and argued, of course, but history and scholarship tell a similar story (and long before the explosion of campaign-finance problems). In his seminal 1957 study, "An Economic Theory of Democracy," Anthony Downs, a political scientist who served on commissions under the Johnson and Bush administrations, traced how political parties hold very few firm policy positions. Rather than build public support around their ideas, he proposed, they usually pick ideas in order to win support. (See, the current GOP shift on immigration.) Downs documented how in a two-party system, that approach means that the parties often end up altering their platforms to match each other.

In the aggregate, those trends can be comprehended, and even sanitized, as the essence of democracy. When the public reaches consensus on big questions, why shouldn't the parties reflect those judgments?

At the individual level, however, it's a harder sell. Hypocrites are more enraging than extremists, as every campaign operative knows.

House of Cards is full of hypocrites, some ashamed, many proud. There is no silver lining here, no appeal to a just system that is temporarily thwarted by corrupting forces. So far, it is simply bad people using democracy as tyrants use tyranny. If Fincher's goal was Richard III for a more participatory era—with a blunt operator "determined to prove a villain"—then House of Cards may find its way toward comeuppance for the ruler next season, when another 13 episodes will drop. But that would be a cop-out.

Frank Underwood is no hero, but in this Congress, he's all we've got.