Decades ago there was a cartoon, I believe it was in The New Yorker: A mousy, James Thurber-esque little man is in front of a newsstand. The newspapers on display feature screaming headlines like these: TERRIFIC TANK BATTLES RAGE IN FRANCE; THOUSAND BOMBER RAID ON BERLIN; YANKS STORM PACIFIC STRONGHOLDS. The little man approaches the news vendor and says, “Action Stories, please.”
That cartoon reminds me of the immense popularity among the chattering classes of the Netflix political drama “House of Cards.” For those with the good fortune not to possess a television, the series is the American knockoff of a British drama of the same name from two decades ago. Both series vividly depict the swinish behavior and Machiavellian scheming that film directors now consider mandatory for genres like this, but in an oddly decontextualized political and social environment.
The principal characters, Francis Urquhart in the British version and Frank Underwood in the American, are Central Casting’s up-to-date representations of the conniving politician on the make: coldly cynical, sociopathically amoral and not even blanching at the cold-blooded murder of an inconvenient witness. This is quite an advance, in terms of a Nietzschean transvaluation of values, over the stock Allen Drury or Fletcher Knebel characters of the political potboilers of half a century ago or even over Claude Raines as Senator Joe Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While Paine was a crook marinated in corruption, at long last, his conscience compelled him to a failed suicide attempt and a passionate confession of his misdeeds on the Senate floor.
Urquhart and Underwood are a throwback to an earlier archetype: not merely the oleaginous, glad-handing pol with sharp elbows, but something more elemental – Macbeth or, better yet, Richard III. One can almost picture the camera zooming in on the lead villain of “House of Cards” (well, the British one, anyway) as he turns to the audience and delivers a Shakespearean soliloquy about how he intends to dispose of whichever unfortunate person happens to be standing between him and his ambition. In more modern cinematic terms, Urquhart and Underwood are the antihero: not the crude James Bond stereotype that has the sanction of the state for his mayhem, but the true villain, who works for himself alone and whose diabolical ingenuity is a kind of shameful pleasure to watch. One thinks of the malevolent Zachary Scott character in the splendid The Mask of Dimitrios or the suave, mercenary spy played by James Mason in 5 Fingers.
The audience roots for them because they have the sheer audacity to do what the meek little Thurber-esque man would never do, but sometimes in his darker moods would like to do. That is why the villains have all the best lines. In a bizarre endorsement, it has been reported that the president of the United States himself, constrained as he is by political circumstance and the remnants of the Constitution, has expressed to the producers of “House of Cards” the sentiment that “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient. … This guy’s [i.e. Frank Underwood’s] getting a lot of things done.” So a TV show about politics has channeled Walter Mitty fantasies even in the president!
For the lesser members of the public (at least those having the wherewithal for a Netflix subscription, meaning those more likely to imagine they are politically aware), “House of Cards” puts the arcane rigmarole of Washington politics on a level they can understand: the lone psychopath who is the Hillside Strangler of a hundred cop shows, from “Dragnet” to “CSI.” The establishing shot has now gone upscale, to Capitol Hill, and the references are to cloture motions in the Senate rather than drug busts in the tenderloin district – how flattering to the sophistication of the viewer! – but the machinery of the plot is familiar and comprehensible. It is digestible in a way that reality is not. The reception of “House of Cards,” at least among the more commercially desirable demographics, suggests that people eat up these fictionalized representations of the American political system.
But would similar numbers of that demographic sit still for a straightforward documentary on the skullduggery that went into introduction and passage of the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq? Or Wall Street’s efforts to buy off politicians and blunt the force and effect of financial reform? Would such film documentaries engender the web articles and tweets and social media chit-chat that “House of Cards” has?
Let’s unpack the contrasts. During the past couple of decades of my staff tenure, I was aware of no elected official skulking the corridors of Capitol Hill or the adjacent Metro system looking for ambitious reporters to murder. But these same politicians’ imprimatur on duly passed public law led to the needless deaths of 4,500 US soldiers in Iraq and countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. The narrative arc of financial deregulation, beginning in the 1980s, proceeding through the repeal of Glass-Steagall and culminating in the 2005 Bankruptcy Act (which made it harder for ordinary citizens to discharge debt*) was far too tedious to explain in a TV miniseries. Yet the inevitable collapse resulted in $12.8 trillion of losses: an unimaginable and ultimately meaningless sum to a public used to dramatized bank heists and embezzlements.
Many people cannot take in a historically enormous crime when they are used to regarding as horribly wicked the familiar individual homicide or case of graft. But not only that: art is not always truth. Elected officials are not in the main, and probably not in the particular, the kind of people who would commit a one-on-one murder with their bare hands. And they are not cynical in the way a Frank Underwood is cynical. Through conditioning and assimilation, most of them come to believe what they say, and vote accordingly. The man becomes the mask. That, combined with peer pressure, group think and confirmation bias, makes them what they are. That mixture of traits in otherwise “good” characters discharging public duties can sometimes result in a far more subtle and consequential evil than the obvious amorality of a lone criminal.
Truth is always stranger than fiction. It is also more urgently connected to the information we need to know to live as citizens. Yet fiction is more compelling, because the writers of fiction adapt it to the experience and expectations of the audience: just as the little man of 70 years ago found gangsters and superheroes more believable and “exciting” because they were more within the ambit of his imagination than the most destructive and genocidally murderous war in world history.
*Incredibly, the act also made derivatives contracts sacrosanct, i.e. they could not be discharged in bankruptcy. Accordingly, municipalities such as Detroit that were inveigled into making interest rate swaps allegedly to protect themselves found in bankruptcy proceedings that the contracts could be discharged only if the counterparty voluntarily waived his right to full payment. Municipal pension beneficiaries, needless to say, enjoyed no such protection.