National politics commands more attention on prime-time television today than ever before. With eight programs currently set in Washington, D.C.,1 politics may come to define contemporary television, much as urban crime did in the 1970s and Westerns did in the 1950s. “The West Wing” inaugurated the trend in 1999, the year after President Clinton’s impeachment. The show, responding to an increasingly aggressive, coarse, reactionary, and successful Republican Party, featured the thoughtful, idealistic, and reasonable President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a man who believed in government’s capacity to improve the lives of citizens. During its seven-season run, liberals smarting from Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” could tune into “The West Wing” and feel a little better for an hour.
A change of sorts came after Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office. A string of dramas and comedies about Washington followed, but the new programs have, to date, featured little earnestness toward public service. Some of them have contained a tone of cynicism that has reached full expression in the popular Netflix drama “House of Cards.” Now in its second season, this stylish but empty series reflects something of the deep ideological crisis affecting American politics.
“House of Cards” pivots on the twin themes of betrayal and revenge. In the premier episode, the president reneges on his promise to appoint the House Majority Whip, a Democrat named Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), to the office of Secretary of State. In retaliation, Congressman Underwood devises a plot, with help from his impossibly unflappable wife, Claire (Robin Wright), to destroy those who betrayed him and attain his rightful position of power. Underwood proceeds to destroy careers, bust unions, manipulate public opinion, and charm or threaten people as needed.
A writer for The New Yorker recently described “House of Cards” as a “meditation on amorality.” It is not that. There is no evidence of a moral code by which to judge amorality, no tension between principles and expediency, no conflict between means and ends. “House of Cards,” instead, luridly follows Congressman Underwood’s machinations as he pursues power for its own sake.
By conventional standards of morality, Underwood is a bastard — no meditation required. He is cunning and merciless. These traits, which are not altogether out of place in an era in which viewers expect to see a measure of dysfunctional behavior in television, have some entertainment value. What new outrage will Underwood perpetrate in this episode? Let’s watch! Nonetheless, as Underwood quickly becomes the man we love to hate, “House of Cards” devolves into semicamp. Cheap entertainment gives way to tedium, because the show offers nothing more than Underwood’s ambition. “House of Cards” purports to expose how politics really works, but it can’t move beyond its pointlessness.
The show’s American creator, Beau Willimon, a former Democratic staffer, is to blame for its imaginative failings, but “House of Cards” (originally an English series) also reflects a pervasive suspicion toward Washington characteristic of American politics over the past four decades. “[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1981. The president and his supporters railed against “big government” and its incessant meddling, taxing, and nurturing of social pathologies. Liberals, then and now, have failed to mount a strong counteroffensive. Since the end of the postwar economic boom in the 1970s, liberals haven’t managed to convince a majority of voters that governmental power should be used to foster economic growth and social equality. Many liberals themselves have lost their conviction. Few, if any, Democrats of national stature — Obama included — call themselves liberals, not openly anyway. Who, except Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., (and he’s a socialist, not a liberal), wins elections on a platform of full employment, redistribution of wealth, government regulation, and the revitalization of public institutions?
By contrast, Republicans have for decades consistently and proudly proclaimed their conservatism, stretching that label to ever-distant extremes. They overreach on occasion and sometimes lose important elections and congressional votes, but Republicans have not surrendered ideological terrain. Most Democrats have come to concur, with greater or lesser conviction, that the free market can best allocate goods and services, as well as solve society’s problems. (Accordingly, “The West Wing” moved toward the political center as the series progressed.) If Washington suffers from gridlock, this is not because Democrats have swung to the left, but because Republicans have grown increasingly dogmatic and determined to dismantle the Great Society and the New Deal. The failure of Democrats to offer a coherent ideological alternative — distinct from ad hoc positions — helps to explain the impoverished depictions of politics on television. What ideals should we aspire to achieve? How might we imagine a satisfying society?
The one major exception is “The Wire” (2002-2008). With astonishing subtlety, complexity, and detail, “The Wire” explores the ravages of neo-liberal economics as suffered by the city of Baltimore. It begins with the drug trade in a single neighborhood and shifts, with each subsequent season, to a different locale (the docks, city hall, public schools, the
newsroom) where additional, interconnected themes enter the story. The series is emotionally taxing. Children suffer; sympathetic characters die; well-intentioned plans go awry. Corruption, indifference, cruelty, and tragedy confront viewers in each episode. And yet, “The Wire” does not sink into cynicism. Characters do their best in adverse circumstances. Despite obstacles, several of them manage to persist and to improve their lives, if only marginally. In a longshoreman’s bar, black and white workers regularly gather together after work. They don’t love one another or necessarily agree on union matters, but they sit together. Their bar happens to be one of the few spaces, perhaps the only one in television history, where groups of black and white men socialize together — connected, in this case, by frayed ties of labor solidarity. Here we see the flickering humanism that forms “The Wire’s” moral core.
That moral core, which is the belief in human possibility in the face of formidable structural forces, may be as good a departure point as any for artistic explorations of politics in an era of ever-widening inequalities, when the language of “branding” and “monetizing” determines values, and the public good seems little more than a quaint concept.
1 The eight programs include
“Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” “The Blacklist,” “Hostages,” Veep,” “Alpha House,” and “The Americans,” which is set in the 1980s.email print