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House of Cards and the Liberal Imagination

The Netflix series’ cynicism shouldn’t be mistaken for considered political critique.

The agonizing death of American liberalism hasn’t been fun to live through, but it’s starting to make for good art. Take Netflix’s new series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, a South Carolina politician scheming his way to the heights of power. It’s not only entertaining, but informative. Not for its accuracy — the series’ vision of American politics is skewed beyond recognition — but for what it gets wrong. House of Cards is a Freudian trip into the deep recesses of the liberal imagination.

Underwood is a Democratic majority whip on the warpath against his own party after losing out on an expected Secretary of State appointment. “Never again,” he tells his chief of staff, “will we allow ourselves to be put in such a position.” Outwardly Underwood takes his snubbing in stride — but he plans a political rise, destroying anyone standing in his way.

Like Tony Soprano or Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Underwood is a high-functioning sociopath who somehow keeps viewers rooting for him. The show makes clear, however, that its star isn’t tainting an otherwise pristine political environment, but rather playing by its perverse logic. Underwood meticulously plots, extorts and manipulates without any semblance of ideological motivation or political loyalty. It’s striking that a performance this cynical resonates so well just a few years after Obama’s hopey-changey revolution.

The depiction of American politics as dominated by corporations and awash in corruption has a certain progressive appeal. It’s a healthy antidote to The West Wingalso now streaming on Netflix. That Aaron Sorkin-created series, dripping with respect for the American presidency, served as a therapeutic fantasy for liberals during the dark years of the Bush administration. Every few scenes, a double-door swings open and President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) limps in and says something idealistic. An inspired staff springs to action. Tough choices are made as to whether or not to bomb this-or-that Third World country. Compromises are happily reached on domestic issues. Liberal House members offering any sort of resistance are portrayed as charmingly naïve. The Republicans who control Congress are thorny, but loyal, opponents. At the end of each episode the viewer is reminded that we are, indeed, all Americans after all.

After Obama’s election, liberals tried to make over Washington in The West Wing’s image — post-political, free of legislative rancor, fixed to the will of a single charismatic president. But they’ve run into a roadblock, an obstructionist Congress unbound by Sorkin-style civility.

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