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How Realistic Is 'House of Cards' Anyway?

Not at all, really. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy it for what it is.
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House of Cards. (Photo: Netflix)

House of Cards. (Photo: Netflix)

I am a rather devoted fan of House of Cards (U.S. version), as are many of my friends and extended family members, both inside and outside the political world. And from what I gather, the show has a large following among the country's political class. President Obama watches it, and Slate's Political Gabfest actually devoted one of their three segments last week to a discussion of just why people watch it. Interestingly, one of the questions I hear most about the show, mainly from people who don't work in politics or academia, is, "How realistic is it?"

The answer: Not remotely! OK, let's just concede that the show is roughly based on Washington, D.C., politics, and that the writers have some familiarity with the basic features of the Constitution and the layout of the District of Columbia. And let's also concede that there are some venal people in politics who use issues to gain power rather than using power to advance issues. And maybe, just maybe, there are people who are so hungry to hold high office that they would literally kill for it.

No one in Frank Underwood's world gets anything done by delivering a stirring speech; they do it through fierce and conniving bargaining.

All of that stipulated, the show is still about as ridiculous as Kevin Spacey's accent. The basic conceit is that Frank and Claire Underwood are pretty much the only strategic thinkers in all of Washington. Everyone else on the show, including the president, has simplistic motivations (I care about Alzheimer's research! I want a wine museum in my district!), can either be bought off for a song or can't be bargained with at all, and can't see more than one branch down a game tree. If there were somehow another strategic member of Congress, the whole Underverse would collapse in on itself.

What's more, the Underwoods operate in a world nearly without consequences. Frank convinces the Democrats to abandon long-held policy stances to avoid a shutdown and then forces a compromise through the Senate using (literally) police tactics? All in a day's work. This is just how you get things done in Washington. Hell, the president actually bragged about it in the State of the Union Address.

How might something like this have been perceived in real life? Well, one similar example comes from the 1963 California Assembly, when Speaker Jesse Unruh (D-Los Angeles) literally locked Republican members in the chamber for more than 24 hours, demanding that they vote on the state budget bill. This move was widely seen as an embarrassment and a loss for the speaker and for the state Democratic Party. Unruh was pilloried in the press and his reputation took a major hit. Underwood likely would have faced similar criticism, or worse, once images of the senate majority leader in handcuffs hit the Internet.

Now, to some extent, the deeply cynical House of Cards may be a useful antidote to the sweetly optimistic West Wing. No one in Frank Underwood's world gets anything done by delivering a stirring speech; they do it through fierce and conniving bargaining. That's good to note, although I think it does West Wing, which at least tried to present a realistic portrayal of D.C., a disservice. After all, very little actually got done on West Wing! Mostly, it was idealistic staffers trying to achieve things, largely failing, and then the president consoling them at the end of the day with a useful bromide. In some ways, that's a more realistic view of politics—very little actually gets done because there are smart and strategic people on both sides of every issue. Frank Underwood is only able to get stuff done because everyone else is an idiot.

So, fine, House of Cards isn't very realistic. That doesn't make it any less fun. You shouldn't watch House of Cards to understand Washington politics any more than you should watch Dirty Dancing to understand pre-Roe abortion laws or The Jazz Singer to learn about the Jewish diaspora. That's not what it's about. It's about the sheer pleasure of watching evil people do cruel things and get away with them. Washington just happens to be the setting. Enjoy.