Why House of Cards bums me out

Jacob Judd, Staff member

Spoiler alert: Politics suck…but do they have to?

House of Cards is an Emmy and Golden Globe winning political drama about a corrupt and ruthless politician who weasels his way from a leadership position in congress all the way to the presidency without a single vote being cast. It’s a grim and gritty drama about the seedy underbelly of Washington. It’s a modern MacBeth where back-stabbing has more to do with lying and blackmail than daggers. It’s a cynic’s idea of Washington.

A show where a plot line about passing massive education reform and a senior White House staffer personally tracking down and silencing a prostitute who knows too much are given equal weight. That’s a really bleak perspective from which to examine the highest office in the land. There’s no redeeming this Washington. It’s the kind of show that makes me want to give up on government altogether.

But I also grew up watching The West Wing. It’s another political drama about the daily grind of trying to govern. It follows an idealistic (but by no means naive) presidential administration as they fight against very real political problems: partisanship, budget reform, reelection. It’s about good, smart, and righteous people struggling to do the right thing, and govern the United States responsibly. This show taught me that it does matter who you vote for, and that government should be about serving its people.

It’s easy for me to see why all of my friends are buzzing about House of Cards, while most of them fall asleep halfway through West Wing’s pilot. One indulges the notion that politics (as a force for good) is a lost cause, a place where the game is rigged by the opportunistic and powerful. The other inspires us to be better than we are, and to take seriously our responsibility as voting citizens living in a republic.

House of Cards succeeds by feeding on our insecurities and frustrations as a nation. After more than a decade of war, recession, bailouts, and partisanship, the world around us can seem hopelessly broken, and politics can often seem like the worst of it all. And if we allow this idea to take root in our mind it becomes easy to write off politics altogether, thus removing burden of responsibility.

If government is worthless then we as citizens have the perfect excuse to not participate. It’s easy to say, “Well both candidates are probably crooked so why bother?” But that’s not good enough. We owe it to ourselves to make our world less like House of Cards and more like The West Wing. 

The truth is both shows are fantasies, one idealistic the other nihilistic, and real life is probably somewhere in between. Yes, surely there are a few Frank Underwoods out there, but I’d like to believe we have a few Jed Bartlets amongst us too. And either way, they answer to us. By all means, enjoy your House of Cards, as I certainly do. But if you don’t like what’s happening in our nation, don’t forsake it as a lost cause, do something about it.

Make your voice heard, write your congressman, protest and above all, vote. Because it’s not just our right, it’s our responsibility.